By Tim Lacy
The ideas of equality and egalitarianism make hard demands in the context of higher education. While modern participants in higher education generally believe in the equality of persons, or even in access for students, they do not concede the equality of intellect or outcomes. The latter raise concerns about rank, credentials, and power within universities, and perceptions of elitism and hierarchy from without. These issues and problems have been particularly apparent in the American context.
To understand questions of elitism and hierarchies in American higher education—and beyond—it is productive to look at the history in terms of several factors: mission, access, dissemination of knowledge, expertise, democracy, politics and policies, student goals and activism, university leadership, and capitalism. Historical episodes in each arena bear on public perceptions of elitism and academic hierarchies. I believe that themes and topics arising from the Morrill Acts, the Progressive Era, the Wisconsin Idea, the great books idea, and the Sixties, particularly the Port Huron Statement, point toward both complications and progress regarding the democratization of higher education. Historical impulses for change and reform give reason for long-term hope, even if optimism can be fleeting in the short term.
The Wisconsin Idea and Progressive Era
The elitism of early American higher education was rooted in religion, curricula, gender/sex discrimination, and white supremacy. The first efforts to challenge the earliest hierarchies rooted in traditionalist English Protestantism came during the Second Great Awakening, when various institutions focused on less prominent American Protestant sects (e.g. Methodists) sprang up around the United States. This movement allowed for some religious and theological pluralism in higher education overall. The next developments came with the passing, during the Civil War, of the 1862 Morrill Act establishing land grant public colleges. From that act, states funded 69 colleges focused on agriculture and mechanical arts. Most of our “A&M” (e.g. Texas A&M) and “state” (e.g. Michigan State) institutions derive from this. By decentering the classical liberal arts and religion, the Morrill Act established practical accessibility for the masses. A second Morrill Act, passed in 1890, enabled the founding of many of our historically black institutions, such as Alcorn State, Florida A&M University, Lincoln University, and Prairie View A&M University. This helped to begin some diversification by race. Progress in terms of sex discrimination came with the creation of coeducational and all-female colleges, such as Oberlin (1833, coed), Newcomb (1886) and Barnard College (1889).
The 1890s saw further democratization, in terms of curricula and outreach, with the rise of “extension programs.” These brought short courses and correspondence courses to citizens in small towns outside the university’s home base. The most famous came out of the University of Wisconsin, and was an essential component of the so-called “Wisconsin Idea.” Charles McCarthy immortalized the “idea” in a 1912 book of the same name (coincidentally republished this year by Cornerstone Press). Wisconsin’s “University Extension” division hired its own professors and instructors to host debates and public discussions. While the main campus of the university was based in Madison, the extension program placed district offices around the state in Milwaukee, Oshkosh, and La Crosse. These offices oversaw the delivery of bakers’ institutions, criminal law conferences, exhibits, and lectures and debates. The last covered postal savings banks, inheritance taxes, income taxes, the guaranty of bank deposits, rural school consolidation, immigration restriction, tariffs, election recall, and women’s suffrage. The university’s School of Agriculture also brought topics of relevance to farmers through courses, field work, and demonstrations. These covered everything from cream and cheese production, and methods of managing marsh soils and orchard expansion to stable ventilation, cattle rationing, and generally increasing crop yields for corn, barley, oats, wheat, cranberries, and beets.
While these advances seem distant to many of today’s students, faculty members, and US citizens generally, they were vital in the Progressive Era. They established the possibility of higher education institutions a local, familial, and personal presence. They lowered barriers between elite professors and everyday people.
The Liberal Arts & Great Books
In the realm of the liberal arts, another relevant effort to break down barriers between the Ivory Tower elites and everyday people arose in the Progressive Era: the desire to bring great books to the masses. Promoters of what I have come to call “the great books idea,” including Charles Sprague Smith, George Woodberry, and John Erskine in Columbia University, pushed for the spread of liberal arts literacy around New York City and outside the academy (see my article for more on this topic). They resisted the overspecialization and dry careerism that seemed to infect study and research. Their efforts were assisted by former Harvard President Charles W. Eliot’s Harvard Classics series (published first in 1909) and the inexpensive Haldeman-Julius “Little Blue Book” series (first published in 1919).
Of particular concern was development of what Tobias Higbie calls “Labor’s Mind.” Charles Sprague Smith helped found the People’s Institute in 1897, an offshoot of the famed Cooper Union mechanics school in New York City. The People’s Institute brought philosophy and literature to the working-class New Yorkers, and great books through its “School of the People’s Institute.” That school hosted great books classes from the 1920s to the 1940s. A number of great books promoters and concerned intellectuals cycled through the People’s Institute as instructors, including Clifton Fadiman, Richard McKeon, Scott Buchanan, and Mortimer J. Adler. All sought to build bridges from higher education institutions to the outside, and foster critical thinking among citizens through great books.
In my own scholarly work on the great books, which culminated in The Dream of a Democratic Culture (2013), I argue that those promoters sought to foster a permanent democratized culture for all. Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins brought the great books idea to the University of Chicago and Chicago generally, courtesy of the Great Books Foundation (established in 1947) and the publication of Encyclopædia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World (1952). Chicago evolved as the epicenter and lasting home for the movement for the rest of the twentieth century.
The great books idea proved to be an imperfect democratizer of higher education and culture. It did help in delaying specialization in the undergraduate curriculum. While it is true that arguments about the canon’s inclusiveness and challenges to its assumptions of “excellence” later broke a midcentury liberal consensus about the centers of greatness, the great books idea, in its historical context, sought to extend, forms of higher education outside the Ivory Tower. In this sense it was consonant with the Wisconsin Idea. But neither initiative completely destabilized American elites nor challenged its monetary aristocracy.
Post-World War II, the Port Huron Statement, and the 1960s
The post-World War II social, cultural, and political environment has at times come close to breaking down internal and external hierarchies as related to higher education. Courtesy of the GI Bill (the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act), many more people (white males, generally) found their way into higher education after 1945. This could not help but broaden the socioeconomic make-up of campus life, force changes to the curriculum, and shake up administrative activities. As higher education adjusted to this new and expanded population of students, it was forced to adapt to a non-elite population of students. But these changes, however positive, exposed just how hierarchical and elite pre-1945 universities were. More adaptations would be necessary.
The 1962 Port Huron Statement (PHS), produced by Students for a Democratic Society and primarily written by Tom Hayden, still resonates as a manifesto for the democratization of higher education. It does so by railing against the weaknesses of higher ed, as it existed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and also against corporate and establishment influences—both of which have done nothing to break down hierarchies in higher education or in society.
The PHS conveys, in the eyes of its student authors, the failures of American universities to incorporate forward-thinking, democratic change. Universities, they argue, have not “brought us moral enlightenment.” “Our professors and administrators,” it continues, “sacrifice controversy to public relations.” University “curriculums change more slowly than the living events of the world.” Professors’ “skills and silence are purchased by investors in the arms race.” Universities label “passion [as]… unscholastic.” They continue: “The questions we might want raised—what is really important? can we live in a different and better way? if we wanted to change society, how would we do it?—are not thought to be questions of a ‘fruitful, empirical nature,’ and thus are brushed aside.”
The Statement tells us something about how and why universities, in the 1950s and early 1960s, were not flattening hierarchies or helping foster a democratic culture. The student authors tell us that “movements for change” are rare. Instead, what is “commonplace” on the real campus are private individuals engaged in a “notorious ‘inner emigration.’” The campus is “a place of commitment to business-as-usual, getting ahead, playing it cool.” University life is about the “mass affirmation of the Twist, but mass reluctance toward the controversial public stance.” It is about “rules…accepted as ‘inevitable,’ bureaucracy as ‘just circumstances,’ irrelevance as ‘scholarship,’ selflessness as ‘martyrdom,’ politics as ‘just another way to make people, and an unprofitable one, too’.” PHS authors see few students who “value activity as citizens.” Students, in general, are too concerned with “social status (the quality of shirt collars, meeting people, getting wives or husbands, making solid contacts for later on) … [and] academic status (grades, honors, the med school rat race).” Too many students neglect “real intellectual status, [meaning] the personal cultivation of the mind.” The universities were doing nothing to shake the world. “Students don’t even give a damn about the apathy,” the authors reported.
Even worse, the university trained its charges in conformity. It fostered a “‘let’s pretend’ theory of student extracurricular affairs” that “validate[d] student government as a training center for those who want to live their lives in political pretense, and discourage[d] initiative from the more articulate, honest, and sensitive students.” Preparation for citizenship was a fraud that founded on “perpetual rehearsals and, usually, through emasculation of what creative spirit there is in the individual.” This occurred through “a radical separation of the student from the material of study.” PHS authors derided a kind of study of “social reality” that was “‘objectified’ to sterility, dividing the student from life.”
Echoing great books advocates, PHS authors expressed philosophical concerns with specialization, the promotion of technical expertise, and available areas of study. They argued that “the specialization of function and knowledge, admittedly necessary to our complex technological and social structure, has produced an exaggerated compartmentalization of study and understanding.” The result was “an overly parochial view, by faculty, of the role of its research and scholarship. That narrowed vision communicated to students “a discontinuous and truncated understanding … of the surrounding social order.” Students experienced “a loss of personal attachment … to the worth of study as a humanistic enterprise.” The curriculum failed to help students understand human problems and concerns. Hyper-specialization created silos of study and work in higher education that perpetuated hierarchies at the expense of engaging broad social, political, and cultural concerns.
The PHS authors expressed concerns about the capture and cooptation of higher education by elites, especially businesspeople. Universities were susceptible courtesy of “the permanent trusteeship of the administrative bureaucracy.” This led to shifts “toward the value standards of business and the administrative mentality.” Furthermore, “huge foundations and other private financial interests shape … under financed colleges and universities, making them not only more commercial, but less disposed to diagnose society critically, less open to dissent.” These interests—of donors, wealthy businesspeople, heads of foundations—encourage conformity among faculty and students, and in curricula. PHS authors seem concerned, then, about the effects of a capitalist society on higher education.
To SDS members, the story of the university, as of the early 1960s, was a tragedy. It could, under better circumstances, “serve as a significant source of social criticism and an initiator of new modes and molders of attitudes.” Instead the “actual intellectual effect of the college experience” was no better than learning of the world by watching television—meaning that the university only conveyed “the stock truths of the day.” Graduates left “somewhat more ‘tolerant’ than when they arrived, but [were] basically unchallenged in their values and political orientations.” Worse yet, students learned “to accept elite rule within the university, which prepares him to accept later forms of minority control.”
Although the group’s leadership and focus changed as the decade progressed, the group’s criticism of universities did not. SDS member Carl Davidson wrote in 1966 that universities “produce the know-how that enables the corporate state to expand, to grow and to exploit more efficiently and extensively both in our own country and in the Third World.… Without them, it would be difficult to produce the kind of men that can create, sustain, tolerate and ignore situations like Watts, Mississippi and Vietnam.” A later historian of the SDS, Geoff Bailey, speculated that “a radical student movement that focused on student control of the universities … could be the basis for a new radical movement for much wider social transformation.”
Courtesy of the issues outlined in the Port Huron Statement and the activities of SDS, the 1960s saw student and faculty rebellions that helped bring about larger changes in higher education through the 1970s: the number of community colleges increased, coeducation became more widespread, in loco parentis declined, and the curriculum expanded to include subjects such as ethnic studies and women’s studies. Concern for student affairs increased, which resulted in more student advisors and extracurricular programs. Financial assistance grew thanks to the Pell Grant program (authorized in the 1965 Higher Education Act, with disbursements beginning in 1973) and the advent of direct student loans.
The Situation Today
These historical factors—issues of access, relevance, race, curriculum, student careerism, and leadership in higher education—reveal numerous complications in efforts to minimize elitism and break down hierarchies. While elitism and hierarchy are certainly not the problems they were in the 1890s, 1930s, or early 1960s, progress has not been linear. It comes in fits and starts, with some backsliding. Notably, the rise of the neoliberal university (or as Frederik DeBoer has put it, “University, Inc.”) has led to drastic funding cuts to non-elite institutions, and a major shift of the cost of education onto students.
Segregation and opportunities for Black Americans in higher education remain a problem in the United States. Funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is shockingly low. The current presidential administration and its Department of Education have promised more funding for HBCUs, resulting in a “White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” This commitment has been called into question, but HBCU leaders reported progress in early 2018. Meanwhile, progress at individual institutions is uneven. In February 2018, Congress forgave debt incurred in the wake of Hurricane Katrina by Louisiana HBCUs (Dillard University, Southern University at NO, Xavier University) and Tougaloo College in Mississippi. But financial concerns have resulted in probationary status for Bethune-Cookman University (FL), Fisk University (TN), Louisiana Delta Community College, and Salem College (NC). As late as October 2019, Congress missed a funding deadline to renew $255 million in “annual mandatory funding” for HBCUs.
In Wisconsin, former governor Scott Walker enacted massive budget cuts to the University of Wisconsin system in 2015, attacking the universities as a site of privilege, budgetary waste, and elitism. This turned the legacy of the Wisconsin Idea on its head—making the university system, Walker’s telling, a partisan site of ideological liberalism and bloated bureaucratic elitism, out of touch with the state’s regular people. Walker sought to strip tenure from faculty members, and even proposed revising the university’s mission statement to remove its commitment to encouraging public service (a proposal he was later pressured to reverse). Even a former Republican Congressional candidate and UW History professor rebuked Walker for his characterization of university faculty and staff work. Walker lost his bid for a third term in 2018, but the democratizing legacy of the Wisconsin Idea has been damaged in the state and beyond.
At the same time, recent years have seen growing interest in, and willingness to fund, vocational education. Politicians and policymakers have proposed, and in some cases enacted, various measures to make community colleges more affordable and accessible. In 2014, the “Tennessee Promise” program began offering two years of tuition-free attendance at any community or technical college in the state. Maryland created its free community college program in 2018. Apart from providing vocational degrees, community colleges have also helped buck national trends towards a decline in humanities enrollments: the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2015 a steady increase in liberal arts degrees at two-year colleges. In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama proposed tuition-free community college nationwide, and many of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates now support making four-year degrees tuition-free as well. However, free public higher education has hardly become a consensus proposal, with the current Republican administration strongly opposing it.
Although the activism of the 1960s resulted in more financial assistance for students, loans and tuition costs are ongoing concerns. The Department of Education seems to be backing away from commitments made by the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program to forgive debt burdens for students who have worked in public service. Meanwhile, concerns about student loan debt have been a news item since the early 2000s (see here, here, and here), and the purchasing power of Pell Grants has declined.
Even as these funding, accessibility, and political issues percolate, many other factors prevent the full democratization of higher education. Arenas of concern include “legacy” admissions, on-campus student precarity (e.g. hunger, homelessness), privilege for student athletes, graduate student labor (e.g. unionization), contingent faculty labor, and the decline of tenure-track positions. Each arena will require deep work—in the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea, great books reformers, and Port Huron SDSers—before this generation can claim progress on breaking down hierarchies, systems of elitism, and privilege in our universities.
Tim Lacy is an alt-ac historian who works in student affairs for the University of Illinois. He authored The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and is chief editor of an ABC-CLIO collection (forthcoming) on anti-intellectualism and elitism. Lacy co-founded both the U.S. Intellectual History Blog and the Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He earned his PhD and MA, both in U.S. history, from Loyola University Chicago. Lacy lives in Chicago and teaches courses at Loyola University Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the Newberry Library.