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Geiger, Roger L. 2015. The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II.

Geiger, Roger L. 2015. The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 584 pp. $35.00 (cloth)

In The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II, Roger L. Geiger, Distinguished Professor of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University and one of today's foremost historians of American higher education, has applied his widely acknowledged expertise in historical scholarship to develop a comprehensive exposition of the evolution of higher education in America beginning with the formation of Harvard College in 1636 and culminating at the onset of US involvement in World War II when what Geiger terms the "standard American university" (479) was established. Similar to the conceptualization adopted in one of the books Geiger found most useful to his understanding of higher education history--Laurence Veysey's authoritative The Emergence of the American University that framed the development of American universities in terms of four rival conceptions of higher learning: discipline and piety, utility, research, and liberal culture--Geiger frames his own analysis in comparable terms: careers, knowledge, and culture.

Geiger opens chapter one, "The First Century of the American College," with a vignette on Harvard College that draws heavily on two of Samuel Eliot Morison's classic works--The Founding of Harvard College and Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century. He chronicles the escapades of Nathaniel Eaton, the gift of John Harvard, and follows the presidencies of Henry Dunster and Charles Chauncy during which a "college education signified high social status, but also the expectation [that the graduate would] play a prominent role in community or church affairs" (7). The chapter continues with sections on Yale College (1701), founded by Puritans, and on the founding of The College of William and Mary (1693), an Anglican college, in Virginia. Once the colleges were established and staffed with faculties, ongoing conflicts between the faculty and the presidents and governing boards arose over what the balance between new learning and the traditional curriculum should be. Geiger notes that the "American model of a strong president under the authority of an external governing board with a relatively weak faculty" was established during this period (26).

In chapter two, the "Colonial Colleges, 1740-1780," Geiger begins by describing the founding of new colleges in the middle colonies--The College of New Jersey (Presbyterian, 1746), King's College in New York (Anglican, 1754), and the College of Philadelphia (Non-denominational, 1755)--that were a product of rapid growth of the colonies, diverse religious perspectives, and The Great Awakening. Geiger elucidates the influence of the Enlightenment on the colonial colleges with the slow adoption of Newtonian physics, Locke's political philosophy, and Hutcheson's moral philosophy. The founding of Dartmouth College (Congregational, 1769), Rhode Island College (Baptist, 1766), and Queen's College (Dutch Reformed, 1771), were all inspired by New Light or Calvinist beliefs and each college "subordinated learning, particularly the new learning, to perfunctory replication of traditional curricula" (71).

The "Republican Universities," during and just after the American Revolution, are the focus of chapter three. As the largest buildings in the colonies, college halls were often commandeered to serve as barracks, hospitals, and even army headquarters. According to Geiger, all of the colleges except King's "ultimately backed the patriot cause" (89) and sustained some level of operation even if at a diminished capacity due to "loss of students ... [t]he destruction of buildings, libraries, and apparatus ... accompanied by virtual impoverishment" (90). In the new Republic, colleges were deemed important mechanisms for "reproducing the natural aristocracy of learning and talent" (90) so steps were taken to bolster higher education and incorporate it into the new order.

Thirteen colleges were founded during the New Republic era--four public state colleges, eight religiously affiliated private colleges, and one nonsectarian private college. Despite their promise, by 1803, Reverend Samuel Miller reported in his two volume study entitled A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century ... Containing a Sketch of the Revolutions and Improvements in Science, Arts, and Literature during the Period that "[t]he great majority of our Colleges have very inadequate funds" (120). Lack of resources proved to be an ongoing problem for the vast majority of American colleges and universities over time.

Geiger profiles "The Low State of the Colleges" between 1800 and 1820 in chapter four. He argues that colleges were an uncomfortable fit in the new egalitarian spirit. Approximately one percent of white males attended college in the pre-Revolutionary period but attendance did not reach this level again until the middle of the 1820s. Egalitarianism "fanned hostility largely outside of higher education" (124) and The Second Great Awakening
   ... produced three distinct camps: rapidly growing popular
   denominations, led by Baptists and Methodists, who eschewed
   college-educated ministers completely and embraced the egalitarian
   spirit; Federalists and traditional Calvinist denominations, who
   sought to impose religious orthodoxy in the colleges; and a
   shrinking number of republican liberals, who defended the
   Enlightenment heritage of nondenominational toleration and
   openness. (124)


Another factor in the altered relationship of colleges to the people was the proliferation of professional schools in medicine and law--institutions that students attended with little or no prior college education.

In the "Renaissance of the Colleges," chapter five, Geiger argues that the renewed interest in the colleges took three forms: "the desire to improve and perfect the basic pattern of the American colleges; the desire to fundamentally change that model; and efforts by diverse groups in American society to found colleges that they could call their own" (173). Between 1815 and 1840 the number of colleges grew from twenty-eight to eighty and the number of students rose from 2,566 in 1820 to 8,324 in 1840. Westward migration of the population accompanied by a transportation revolution and facilitated by a vast economic expansion all benefitted higher education throughout most of this period.

Among the new models created during the Renaissance period, Geiger says West Point was the most distinctive. Rensselaer School opened with an emphasis on science and later engineering in 1825 and "Mr. Jefferson's University," the University of Virginia, opened in 1825 embodying "Enlightenment ideals of secularism, republicanism, and useful knowledge" (179).

Geiger asserts the Yale Reports of 1828 articulated that "a college education was a foundation rather than a finished education" (190) as it proved to be for Yale students where over two-thirds of the undergraduates pursued professional careers requiring advanced degrees. Though he argued that the Yale Reports were instrumental in creating the idea that a classical curriculum made it possible for each of the denominations in the states and territories to have their own college, Geiger does not link the idea of denominational control over these colleges, made possible through US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall's decision in the Dartmouth College case, as being instrumental to their founding as does Frederick Rudolph in The American College and University: A History. Rudolph explained:
   The decision unleashed an era of denominational college-founding by
   making clear that no exclusive or monopolistic relationship
   necessarily existed between a college corporation and the state
   that had chartered it, and that once chartered a college was beyond
   the control of the state. (211)


Geiger did note that part of the reason the denominational colleges were able to survive was the financial support the denominations gave to the colleges. He explains that only about one-third of the cost of a nineteenth century college education was covered by tuition, while the other two-thirds of the cost came from other sources including private fund raising and the support of the denomination with which it was affiliated.

Geiger attributes the initial efforts to provide higher education for women to three initiatives all in the mid-1830s: Mary Lyon's effort to raise funds to launch Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1834; the advent of coeducational instruction at Oberlin College that same year; and the founding of Georgia Female College in Macon, Georgia in 1835. He explains these foundings as by-products of the Second Great Awakening with each college uniquely molded by the regional cultures of the Northeast, the West, and the South respectively.

Geiger presents late antebellum higher education in terms of regional divergence and scientific advancement between 1840 and 1860. Chapter six begins by describing the advent of moral suasion in place of strict discipline, the introduction of fraternities as social organizations, students writing memoirs about their collegiate experiences, social stratification resulting from matriculation in the most elite institutions, and curricular experimentation in the Northeast. Southern higher education was becoming linked with region's "burgeoning upper class" (229) with the 1830s marking the end of debate on ending slavery by resolving that "slavery was a 'positive good,' justified by the Bible to boot" (230). State colleges were dominating Southern antebellum higher education but by the 1830s denominational colleges established by the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians began to be more prominent and military colleges offered both military and more practical academics. Meanwhile, denominational colleges proliferated in the Midwest. Infusion of science into the curriculum of antebellum colleges achieved only "fleeting success [but nevertheless] thousands of individuals found their own solutions in the interstices of these institutions by surviving in one of the new engineering courses, by independent study with active scientists, or by studying at European universities" (267).

The Civil War brought with it major changes. Geiger highlights many of those changes in "Land Grant Colleges and the Practical Arts," chapter seven. He characterizes the beginnings of high schools, normal schools, female colleges, multipurpose colleges, and schools of science in terms of the organizations being pre-modern institutions. He explains how the War Between the States decimated higher education in the South but had relatively little impact on the enterprise in the North. Secession of the Southern states did enable passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, however, which set the stage for the land grant universities. Geiger discusses the dual state universities--the agricultural colleges and A&Ms and the liberal arts colleges--and the politics that enabled them. Focusing mainly on the eastern universities that added science after passage of the Morrill Act--predominantly MIT--Geiger explains how engineering had always garnered support from industrial philanthropists.

Geiger conceives of "The Creation of American Universities," chapter eight, in terms of processes and institutions. He opens the chapter by quoting Charles W. Eliot from an 1869 essay in which he wrote. "A university, in any worthy sense of the term must grow from seed. It cannot be transplanted from England or Germany" (315). Thus an American university would need to grow by "knitting together research, graduate education, advanced knowledge, and the [undergraduate] college" (316).

Henry Tappan was the first to clearly articulate what should compose an American university and moved the University of Michigan toward a more practical curriculum and research emphasis during the 1850s. After the Morrill Act forced new subjects into the collegiate curriculum and the excellence of research in German universities illuminated deficiencies in America's scholarly inquiry, a group that Geiger calls "the first principal university architects" emerged during the 1860s. These architects were Andrew Dickson White of Cornell, Charles W. Eliot of Harvard, and Daniel Coit Gilman of Johns Hopkins.

The academic revolution chronicles the organization of knowledge during the latter part of the nineteenth century including pre-modern associations and scholarly journals; the influence American scientists who studied in Germany had on the emerging American university; and the difficulties academic leaders had in modernizing the undergraduate colleges. In research, graduate education, and the new universities, Geiger discusses the roles Jonas Clark, Leland Stanford, and John D. Rockefeller played in funding great institutions of their time. Geiger's discussion of the great American universities emphasizes the disagreement between scholars such as Edward E. Slosson, Laurence Veysey, and himself over ranking the top universities and notes that the early rankings quickly led top universities to form the American Association of Universities.

Parallel to the evolution of the "academic revolution" in American universities was a revolution in the undergraduate experience that Geiger calls the "collegiate revolution," chapter nine. "Whereas research and PhDs were the hallmarks of the academic revolution," Geiger wrote, "football and fraternities were the hallmarks of the collegiate revolution" (365).

Geiger characterizes the high collegiate era first in terms of newly attained student freedom and the proliferation of extracurricular organizations including the YMCA, fraternities, athletics, and a closer relationship between alumni and their colleges and universities. Exploring high schools, colleges, and professional schools, Geiger explains that the four-year college experience survived various efforts at reconfiguration due to three important developments: the collegiate revolution that prevented the truncation of its duration merely for curricular reasons; the gradual emergence of high schools as the principal preparation for college; and the elevation of professional education. He describes the advent of quality measures in college admissions including regional accrediting associations for high schools, admissions examinations pioneered by the College Entrance Examination Board, and the adoption of the "unit course of study" for high school subjects.

Geiger examines how reform and rigor were accelerated in medical schools by mergers of the better proprietary institutions with major universities and modernization was achieved after the American Medical Association commissioned the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT) to conduct an independent evaluation of medical schools in 1909 resulting in the influential Flexner Report. Law schools engaged in a similar evaluation of their efficacy through CFAT in 1913 resulting in The Reed Report which concluded "humanitarian and political considerations unite in leading us to approve of efforts to widen the circle of those who are able to study the law" (394). Legal education thus provided three distinctive features of twentieth-century American higher education: academic meritocracy; selective admissions; and open, parttime evening schools.

Higher education for women highlights two major innovations that occurred after the Civil War--coeducation in universities and the creation of endowed women's colleges. Geiger describes the emergence of M. Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr as the foremost spokesperson for women's higher education and how most coeducational institutions continued to marginalize women. Geiger provides an explanation for how the transformations precipitated by the academic and the collegiate revolutions influenced liberal culture noting that his analysis deviates somewhat from the conclusions of Laurence Veysey. Geiger argues that liberal culture offered "a premonition of the emergence of greater differentiation in the realm of higher education--the herald of mass higher education" (421).

"Mass Higher Education, 1915-1940," chapter ten, had its origins during World War I. Geiger begins by explaining the ramifications of 100 percent Americanism on academe including the repudiation by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) of its "Declaration of Principles." Intended to protect academic freedom, the AAUP capitulated when it approved new wartime grounds for dismissing faculty members and special scrutiny for foreign born or parented professors. Establishment of the Student's Army Training Corps in 1918 "transformed colleges and universities into preinduction camps" (425) in which all pretense of academic standards were abandoned as male students fully expected to be transferred to active duty status at the end of each term. University expertise was effectively utilized through National Research Council projects that integrated basic and applied research as well as university and industrial science, resulting in "the conviction that coordination of basic and applied science would multiply the rich benefits of discovery and innovation for American society" (427).

Mass higher education in Geiger's vernacular was not massive by twenty-first century standards but grew from 5.5 percent of 18-21 year-olds attending college in 1915 to 15.5 percent attending by 1940 and 7.7 percent of the same age group earning their first degree by 1940. Explaining where much of the growth occurred, Geiger describes changes in junior colleges from predominantly liberal arts to a more vocationally based terminal degree; the evolution of normal schools to teachers colleges many of which came to be considered state universities; and the emergence of a new form of institutional organization--the Association of Urban Universities that "postulated a new identity and distinctive mission for institutions located in cities" (438).

In shaping elite higher education, Geiger describes the problems confronted by the elite institutions after the Great War including finances, the first modern youth culture, and "the Jewish problem" of having so many qualified Jewish applicants that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton found themselves hiding quotas on Jewish admissions ostensibly to "retain the patronage of eastern upper-class families." Harvard's quota was set at fifteen percent of the entering class, Yale's at ten percent, and Princeton's at three percent (448, 451).

Geiger describes how, in order to keep pace with the "impulse toward liberal culture, universities felt the need to either raise academic standards or to devise more effective curricula or both" (455). He asserts that institutional initiatives along these lines took one of three approaches: "culling the herd by inserting a radical break between the second and third years of undergraduate study; enhancing the achievements of superior students through honors; and adding curricular innovations designed to rekindle that will-o-the-wisp, liberal education" (456).

In advanced education of African Americans, Geiger begins by explaining the pitifully small number of African Americans who were enrolled in classes beyond primary courses, then discusses the effects of Jim Crow and the debates resulting from Booker T. Washington's approach to postsecondary "industrial education" juxtaposed against the ideas of Harvard educated W.E.B. Du Bois and the Talented Tenth. The section concludes with a discussion of the nascent efforts of Charles Hamilton Houston and the NAACP to desegregate professional schools in higher education during the 1930s.

"The Standard American University," chapter eleven views the shaping of American institutions as an isomorphic process that was facilitated by philanthropic foundations. This was achieved in large measure through the beneficence of philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller and their respective foundations during the 1920s. Philanthropy through foundation grants peaked during the Roaring Twenties but alumni and individual giving played an increasingly important role for the major research universities both private and public during the Golden Age. Geiger says critics of the universities emerged along with ratings of faculties that helped inform university rankings but Harvard, Chicago, and Yale dominated them. In the five leading state universities, responsibility for academic advancement devolved from presidents to faculty during this period. By the 1930s, pressures from the Great Depression forced universities to operate more efficiently and effectively with special emphasis on faculty productivity.

Though the New Deal enabled only a slight recovery for the US economy as a whole during the Great Depression, the last half of the thirties saw sustained growth in enrollments with higher education generally emerging "from the decade financially weakened but academically more developed" (508). Geiger reports that based on the 1940 census, 4.6 percent of adults (age twenty-four or older) had graduated from college with another 5.5 percent having attended from one to three years without graduating--by far the highest percentage of any nation in the world (515).

Professional schools were beginning to dominate higher education. Students were attending medical and law schools in increasingly large numbers with high levels of persistence, and business schools were rapidly proliferating at this time. Geiger argues that the singularly outstanding achievement of higher education during the interwar years was the relationship that developed between the universities and American science. "[T]he ascent of American science to preeminence in the world [including] both the depth of expertise and the sheer number of experts provided a marked superiority over the Axis powers" (528) during World War II.

Having been warned by another historian that Dr. Geiger might be disapproving of using sociological and organizational behavior based conceptual frameworks to explain historical phenomena, I was heartened to see him frame the American system of higher education in the sociological terms of an "organizational field" including the "emulation of more prestigious or successful institutions" and the "strengthening [of] professional networks and norms" (532). He even elaborates that these processes were present in the three major "revolutions" that shaped twentieth-century higher education--the land grant movement, the collegiate revolution, and the academic revolution (532-535).

In "Culture, Careers, and Knowledge," chapter twelve, Geiger sums up the state of American higher education in the post-World War II era in terms of four developments. First, liberal education, a signature of higher education since its founding survived. Second, practical forms of advanced education in the land grants and other institutions rose to the same level of acceptance as liberal education by 1940. Third, America ascended to world leadership in science providing tremendous advantages, not just during World War II but also in post-War industry and technology. Finally, President Truman's Commission on Higher Education for Democracy reported that fifty percent of all students could benefit from postsecondary education and should have the opportunity to benefit from it by 1960. This goal was realized through state appropriations that built flagship, regional, and community college campuses across the nation.

The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II is comprehensive, readable, and encyclopedic in its coverage. If it is deficient in any areas, Geiger's coverage of higher education for women, for African Americans, and for two-year colleges are all a bit scant but the sources he cites help compensate for some of these inadequacies. Stopping at the onset of American involvement in World War II, Geiger misses the real expansion of mass higher education in what has been termed the "egalitarian era." Fortunately, he may have planned for this by already having written two books to guide the historical study of research universities since the Second World War: Research and Relevant Knowledge and more recently Knowledge and Money. Despite its few deficiencies, Roger Geiger's monumental achievement is destined to serve as the standard text for teaching graduate courses in the history of American higher education for years to come.

T. Gregory Barrett

University of Arkansas at Little Rock
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Author:Barrett, T. Gregory
Publication:American Educational History Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
Words:3630
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