American Academic Cultures, Paul H. Mattingly. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Summary: Traces the history and development of higher education in the United States as a succession of seven “generational cultures,” using examples of prominent institutions representing the emergence of each culture.
How did higher education in the United States achieve its present status, whether one considers this desirable or otherwise? Was there a golden age in American higher education, and if so, exactly when was that? These and other questions are much discussed in higher education circles and the topic of numerous historical explorations of higher education in America. Most trace the development from colleges closely tied to the church through the rise of research universities and public, land-grant institutions, down to the present day of our complex multiversities. Most works simply trace a linear development. What is distinctive in Paul Mattingly’s work is the proposal that this development might be understood as a succession of seven overlapping “generational academic cultures” which he discusses in the course of the fifteen “essays” that comprise the book. In each of these, he elaborates the character of these cultures through highlighting examples of prominent institutions, cultural trends, and key figures that represent a particular academic culture.
The seven generational academic cultures he identifies are (the date ranges are my approximations):
- Evangelical (1636-1800): These colleges were church-related institutions (Harvard, Yale, etc) that focused on the intersection of piety and intellect and whose character was profoundly shaped by the Great Awakening.
- Jeffersonian (1750-1830): As denominational colleges spread southward, Jefferson and the patrician hierarchy of Virginia sought to check the strong denominational indoctrination and paternalistic control through a publicly supported university that expressed the mores and values of the region. The University of Virginia was the educational, and even architectural expression of the ideal of “Mr. Jefferson’s University.”
- Republican/non-denominational (1800-1860): The growth of a post-Revolutionary republic and the need to educate business and civic leaders brought an emphasis on “moral character over “true belief,” resulting in even denominational schools broadening their curriculum to accommodate these needs. (I wonder if 2 and 3 are aspects of a single academic culture)
- Industrially-driven post-graduate/professional organization (1860-1910): The Civil War marked a watershed in higher education as war-related research and scientific and technological advances resulted in an increasing emphasis on post-graduate research on the European model, and post-graduate professional education. It led to the rise of the land-grant universities propelling both agricultural and engineering and science education, and Charles William Eliot’s efforts to turn Harvard into a “generic” university.
- A Progressive (urban-driven) pragmatism with a substantial liberal arts/teaching countercurrent (1880-1930): The rise of American cities and Progressive reforms led to the growth of urban universities that addressed issues of education, health, safety, and labor. This was the period of figures like Thorstein Veblen in sociology and John Dewey in philosophy and education. This period was epitomized by William Rainey Harper’s University of Chicago that fused liberal education with these pragmatic concerns, all within a Gothic architecture harking back to Europe’s great universities.
- An internationally-minded academic discourse (1890-1950): The emergence of research-oriented institutions like John’s Hopkins and its impact on the university landscape led to increasing ties with European scholars. The rise of Nazism resulted in a mass immigration of many of those scholars to the United States, where their presence transformed the discourse in fields from psychology to physics.
- The current corporate multiversity (1940-present): The ultimate expression of the development of pragmatism, where academic departments and interdisciplinary research vastly expanded in respond to federal research funding. Clark Kerr’s University of California–Berkeley is the epitome of this pragmatic university, organized not around an educational ideology but around the driving forces of research monies and market forces.
The work concludes with a chapter on challenging pragmatism, and indeed, it seems the author has landed on the critical question that this survey raises. Mattingly traces an evolution of higher education from institutions shaped around cultures centered on ideas to ones shaped by increasingly pragmatic concerns. The question this raises is whether our system of higher education exists for anything more than serving the research and vocational training needs of the country?
Mattingly contends that throughout this history, faculty have had a shaping role in the successive cultures of higher education, and believes this will be so in the future. I have to admit to being more dubious about both parts of his proposal. I think his survey actually demonstrates the predominant influence of cultural forces outside the university that shaped successive academic cultures. The culture-shapers he singles out inside higher education are primarily university presidents, and it seems that the prominent ones were those who got on the leading edge of broader cultural changes and led their institutional response to these changes. Furthermore, the corporatization of universities with more power flowing to administration and the adjunctification of the faculty suggests to me an even more diminished influence. I think the author is engaging in some wishful thinking at this point unless a concerted and focused movement of resistance and reform by noted scholars and tenured faculty arises.
The other criticism of this work is that it focuses primarily on elite institutions. While noting democratizing trends in higher education (with some attention on the development of the California State system as an example) relatively little attention is given to the diverse landscape of contemporary higher education from community colleges to the continued existence of liberal arts schools, urban universities (not the University of Chicago but the Wayne States (Detroit) of the university world, as well as the state systems, the comprehensive public universities, and the elite research universities. There is no mention of online education nor the rise of for-profit institutions. Perhaps considerations of space preclude this but it all seems an expression of the extension of both republican values (small “r”) and pragmatic concerns that the author so helpfully highlights.
These criticisms aside, the model of generational academic cultures as a way of understanding the history of American higher education seems quite helpful. It helps account for the very different ethos one finds in the collegiate settings of 1750, 1850, 1950, and today. As I noted, it also highlights the interplay of broader and academic cultural forces. Furthermore, the overlapping nature of these cultures underscores that the transition from one culture to another was never without tensions, throwbacks, and contention around the question of why a college or university exists. Furthermore, any meaningful conversation about the future(s) of higher education cannot exist apart from understanding where we are and how we got here, or a consideration of the cultural forces shaping the discussion. Mattingly’s well-researched and organized work seems to me required reading for any who care about such matters.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.