Harvard Educational Review
  1. Spring 1996 Issue »

    American Higher Education

    A History

    Christopher J. Lucas
    New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994. 375 pp. $39.95, $15.95 (paper).

    In 1962, historian Frederick Rudolph wrote a comprehensive history of U.S. higher education that became a standard in the field. Three years later, Laurence Veysey published a long, thoughtful, but overwhelmingly detailed account of a profound shift that occurred in the late nineteenth century, when the American college emerged as the American university.1 Collectively, these two works represent almost canonical texts in the history of higher education. Scholars continue to find them useful as references and teachers continue to assign them to students, albeit often begrudgingly.

    The source of this professorial trepidation is that both books are products of their time. They were written before the major paradigm shifts within social history of the late 1960s and 1970s that, among other criteria, called on historians to be more inclusive of non-elite groups and more critical of standard interpretations. Such history is sometimes attacked as revisionist, but in other circles, including members of the History of Education Society, such work is de rigueur. Therefore, in the intervening thirty years since their publication, historians of education have criticized what was both included in and excluded from the books. Some have questioned a few of the basic interpretations offered by both; for example, that the relatively unchecked development of the research university as the hegemonic model of higher education is an exclusively positive phenomena. Other historians have argued that neither of these books provides a representative history, and that both lack regional balance, offer little discussion of marginalized groups, and neglect the development of several types of institutions, all of which are topics considered more fully in recent educational history.2 Professors have commented that a welcome addition to the field would be a comprehensive, inclusive, single-volume history that built upon the strengths of Rudolph's and Veysey's works, addressed the weaknesses of these authors, and incorporated some of the important historical research of the last three decades.

    Christopher J. Lucas's American Higher Education: A History purports to do just that. While the book does an admirable job of linking the developments of American higher education with its European origins, more fully integrates marginalized groups than either Rudolph, Veysey, or many other earlier historians, and is compelling on the subject of curricular history, its shortcomings outweigh its strengths in the end. The book's principal limitations are its lack of an overriding theme, episodic and disjointed treatment of topics, overwhelming breadth at the sacrifice of depth, and failure to introduce any significant new interpretations.

    In the introduction, Lucas clearly states his purpose. He hopes to assess and understand current concerns in higher education by exploring the past. The impending millennium, he believes, is an opportune time for scholars to take stock of where higher education has been and where it is going. Lucas hopes to contribute to this dialogue by offering a history that may "create a sense of context, a setting within which both continuities and essential discontinuities with the past may be examined fruitfully" (p. xviii). In one sense, he hopes to dispel myths that he believes the general public holds regarding higher education. For example, he illustrates that the ability to attend a higher education institution has not moved linearly from the province of the elite to the current state of accessibility, but rather that entree to college for the poor has waxed and waned over the years.3 Although he acknowledges that by broadening the scope of his work he sacrifices the detail that made earlier works so rich, Lucas aims to break from the standard texts by providing a more inclusive approach, especially of pre-American history. He further adds that he has adopted a very "generous" frame of reference and offers no specific "architectonic theme" or "grand interpretive thesis" (p. xix). Therefore, he hopes, this book will be more accessible to the general reader.

    Lucas asserts that beginning the history of U.S. higher education with the founding of Harvard in 1636 is a "bit like coming in for the end of the third act of a play" (p. xx). Therefore Lucas, a published author on higher education in antiquity, begins his story with the first evidence of schooling in Mesopotamia, several centuries before the apex of Egyptian civilization, and from there marches forward. Most of the book — in fact, the first three of the four parts — is organized chronologically. In Part One (chapters 1-3), Lucas takes the reader through higher education in ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and the Middle Ages; the spread of higher education in Europe and England; the Renaissance, including the founding of Oxford and Cambridge universities, until, finally, higher education appears in colonial Massachusetts. Parts Two and Three (chapters 4-5 and 6-7, respectively) follow a rather standard chronology of U.S. higher education. He begins with the colonial colleges, moves through the antebellum period, discusses the Morrill Act of 1862, and the development of the research university. Finally he examines the modern era from the Wisconsin Idea at the turn of this century through the student demonstrations of the 1960s and 1970s.

    True to his word, Lucas does not offer a tightly argued thesis or an interpretive analysis of the growth and development of higher education. Instead, he moves through time, chronicling events that were ultimately influential on U.S. colleges and universities. This episodic approach has a few interesting advantages, although at times it can be quite disconcerting, especially when the prose and the transitions from one episode to the next are not smooth.

    One advantage of the episodic format is that it allows Lucas to discuss issues whose salience reemerges from time to time. The topic he revisits most frequently is at the heart of the intellectual history of colleges and universities — the nature of knowledge and the history and philosophy of the college curriculum. This is one of the book's stronger aspects and represents an interesting contribution to the field, in contrast with other histories that place greater emphasis on chronicling the nature of governance or the development of institutional structures.

    Lucas plunges into the history of curriculum almost immediately (and not surprisingly) with the discussion of higher learning in classical Greece. He adroitly and succinctly explains the contributions of early philosophers and their teachings, providing the lay reader with just enough etymology or translations of foreign words to maintain interest and clarity. He describes, for example, the sophists or teachers of "wisdom" of the fifth century B.C.E. as "the first full-time teachers, scholars who insisted on being paid handsomely for their labors, savants who offered systematic instruction and a defined course of instruction in those practical arts needed for making one's way in the world" (p. 8). He then discusses Socrates, the primary philosopher who opposed the sophists, and defines the Socratic method of instruction. Lucas next introduces Plato, with his beliefs in the "philosopher-king," and then Aristotle, guiding the reader through each man's philosophic contributions to Western thought. He continues through time to Europe, tracing the rise of scholasticism, humanism, and the impact of the Protestant Reformation on higher education.

    A related theme that Lucas explores on several occasions is the changing nature of the purpose and perceived usefulness of a college education. The objective of education and curriculum are highly interrelated issues, and Lucas does an admirable job of integrating the two concepts. From ancient Rome to the modern university or community college, a tension exists between the dual goals of a university — to train the mind or the soul for enhancement of intellectual satisfaction on the one hand, and to train the student for a viable occupation and respectable place in the labor market and society on the other. Throughout history, some have seen these two ends at great odds with each other; others have seen them as distinct, but mutually reinforcing. Lucas recounts this tension as it appeared in various contexts; for example, the debates surrounding the role of the emerging American university as a pure research institution versus the more utilitarian approach adopted by the land grant institutions (p. 144). Perhaps the most interesting discussion of this topic is again in Part One of the book. While most general readers would be aware that modern education struggles with the competing demands on students' time between liberal or general studies and professional or applied studies, historical naiveté often lends itself to nostalgia and considering the "good ol' days" the pinnacle. Therefore, some readers may imagine that before the mid-twentieth century, higher learning was perhaps pure and unsullied, clearly emphasizing the classics. This is a myth that Lucas dispels commendably.

    Lucas also examines the frequent reluctance of universities to embrace new forms of knowledge or new ways of thinking. Although he rarely ponders the reasons for such resistance or offers his analysis of why faculties rebuff change, the discussion of this reluctance is nevertheless intriguing. For example, when mentioning the failure of many seventeenth-century European universities to embrace science, Lucas comments:

    Not surprisingly, universities displayed little interest in scientific discoveries. Just as traditional institutions of higher education had been slow to incorporate elements of humanist scholarship within their programs, universities tended once again to insulate themselves from the ferment surrounding new forms of knowledge. English schools under the direct influence of Bacon and Newton did show some interest in the physical and biological sciences, but otherwise European universities were not at all receptive. (p. 94)

    Part One of the book is devoted to the nature of higher learning from antiquity to the Renaissance, and here Lucas seems the most comfortable. When he moves through the history of the American curriculum in Parts Two and Three the results are not quite as smooth, although he continues discussing the theme of knowledge and curriculum. He proceeds throughout in a straightforward manner to offer explanations of intellectual movements and the responses such movements engendered. He explains the classical curriculum at the colonial college, the early nineteenth-century struggles for change, and the defense of classical learning offered by the faculty of Yale in 1828. In describing the rise of the university, Lucas discusses the introduction of new subject matter such as agriculture, and the eventual and overwhelming endorsement of science.

    The text is most captivating, however, when Lucas engages the more troublesome aspects of curricular innovation. For example, he reminds the reader that the phenomenal growth of science led universities down the path of appealing to the government and other agencies for research dollars, thus leaving institutions vulnerable to charges of the possible loss of objectivity or integrity (p. 234). Lucas eventually brings up the most recent curricular debate in the United States — expanding the canon beyond Western European traditions, which is often dubbed "political correctness" — and briefly mentions the impact of postmodernism on U.S. faculties (pp. 271–276). Had he offered a theory of why universities resist change and applied that theory to the modern context as well as the historical, the entire discussion of curricular innovation would have been enhanced. In its absence, the reader is essentially left with a collection of facts, albeit interesting ones, about the fluctuations in what is taught and valued in our colleges and universities.

    Despite Lucas's ability to bring up recurring topics that are salient throughout history, the episodic format suffers from three flaws that, as mentioned above, can be quite disturbing. First, Lucas rarely sets the stage or informs the reader of where he is going or why. For example, in his discussion of higher education in ancient Greece, he speaks of the cultural and political importance of eloquent speech and the consequent development of rhetoric as an integral part of the Greek curriculum (p. 20). A reader already quite familiar with educational history would immediately understand why Lucas included this information, recognizing the place of rhetoric in the classical curriculum of American colonial colleges and the nineteenth-century struggle over its demise on U.S. campuses. But would the lay reader, the author's target audience, make such a connection? Lucas occasionally clarifies the connections among various pieces of information at the end of a chapter or section. When discussing the rise of residential colleges in medieval Europe, for example, he concludes by explaining that Oxford and Cambridge clung to the college tradition after it had fallen off in Europe. This is why Harvard, whose founders and early professors were typically graduates of those institutions, was formed on the residential model. More often than not, however, Lucas's text lacks introductory paragraphs that could provide important contexts for the material about to be presented. Such paragraphs would add both clarity and sense of direction, especially for nonhistorians, for whom Lucas purports to write.

    A second problem with the episodic nature of the book is understanding the relative attention Lucas gives various topics. Lucas states that his goal is to illuminate current issues in higher education for the lay reader, yet he gives approximately the same amount of space to Charles Eliot's (Harvard president from 1869 to 1909) introduction to the elective principle, for example, as he does to the origins of the historically Black colleges and universities. While both topics are important historically, and Lucas does revisit both of them later in the book, it seems that institutional racism and the relatively low rate of African American participation in higher education are more pressing contemporary problems than the use of electives in undergraduate education. Given the stated objective of the author — to assess the current issues in higher education by examining its past — it would seem that the former warrants more attention than the latter. Because Lucas does not inform the reader of his direction, does not explain his reasons for including or excluding particular topics, and fails to argue any particular point of view, the book lacks a clear sense of narrative voice and purpose.

    In the penultimate chapter, Lucas presents a litany of current complaints leveled against higher education by students, politicians, the media, and the general public. This chapter, in which Lucas attempts conspicuous demythologizing, is arguably the strongest in the book. Words in his chapter subheadings clearly indicate the tone and scope of the subjects covered: multiculturalism, political correctness, loss of community, malaise, academic standards, neglect of undergraduate studies, careerism, and fragmentation. The fact that many of these topics are frequently stories in major newspapers indicates the timeliness of the issues.

    In chapter nine, the final chapter, Lucas returns to a few key issues that he examined previously in the context of his discussion of the development of curriculum, the changing nature of the student body, and the evolving role of the faculty. Allowing three to five pages per topic, he provides a synopsis of the historical development of each, illustrating either the continuity or discontinuity of history. He looks at issues such as "Inclusivity and Elitism," "Faculty Power and Governance," "Curricular Conservatism," and "Knowledge as Social Construction." His brief description of "Academic Autonomy and Freedom" throughout the ages provides an interesting example of the way he handles these issues in the last chapter (pp. 303-307). He speaks of the myth of "the college or university as a kind of secular monastery . . . a sheltered enclave in which scholar-monks pursue their academic mission." He notes how this myth is most often evoked when discussing the notion of academic freedom, and then recounts various instances where academic freedom, as we understand it today, in which tenure protects faculty from religious or political discrimination, was not part of American colleges. He reminds the reader that until well into the nineteenth century, colleges used religious doctrine as a criteria for hiring or firing professors and presidents, antebellum southern colleges dismissed professors who espoused anti-slavery positions, pro-union stances cost professors their jobs at the turn of the century, and, as recently as the 1950s, the anti-Communist zeal of McCarthyism threatened academic freedom again. From the lay reader's perspective, this last chapter may be the most useful and informative.

    Despite the effectiveness of the last chapter, overall, this book is not likely to be highly regarded by either the lay reader or the historian. Lucas purports to write for a general audience and to aim for readability. He seems to assume that lay readers do not want copious details (a possibly correct assumption), but unfortunately, Lucas chooses instead not to offer much depth. The text is fairly long at 316 pages, but several topics are introduced and quickly dropped due to the episodic nature of the chronology. Even in the last chapter, he allows only a few pages per topic.

    A third limitation of Lucas's approach, tightly linked to the other two, is the nature of his transitions from one topic to another. They can often be quite abrupt, interrupting what little flow there is to the text. While jagged transitions are common throughout the book, perhaps the most jarring appear in the last chapter of Part Three, which concerns post–World War II developments in higher education. After describing the effects of McCarthyism on academic freedom and faculty job security, he noted, "It was by any accounting an unhappy and tragic opening chapter in the history of American higher education at the midpoint of the twentieth century" (p. 227). This sentence is then followed by the subheading, "Changing Growth Patterns." The first sentence of the new section does not contain a bridge to the introduced topic: "Colleges and universities had showed remarkable growth throughout the first half of the 1900s, with enrollments expanding exponentially well beyond the increase in the nation's population for the same fifty-year period" (p. 227). Thus, narrative cohesiveness linking the two sections is lost.

    The readability of the work is further marred by unevenness in tone and prose style. The book almost sparkles in Part One. Lucas's depth of knowledge and excitement regarding the classical and European origins of higher education is obvious. In concluding Part One, he writes engrossingly, "In sum, the history of European higher learning from the close of the medieval era to the threshold of the modern age in the eighteenth century was fraught with irony, paradox, and ambiguity" (p. 100). He is skilled at delighting the reader with historical tidbits. He reveals the origins of words in everyday parlance such as academy, hoi polloi, college, museum, cynic, university, and hedonism. In another example, he reminds the reader that students have been thought of as troublemakers and rabble-rousers by local townspeople since antiquity. The tone is again lively in Part Four with his descriptions of the current problems and criticisms vexing higher education. In between, the tone is often less animated and, occasionally, the prose is quite awkward. During his explanation of the significance of the Dartmouth College case, for example, one finds this clumsy sentence: "It required a decision by the United States Supreme Court decision in 1819 to help lay the foundations for the legal distinction between a `public' and `private' college" (p. 114, italics added).

    Lucas uses his intent of producing a volume for non-historians as justification for not writing thematically or analytically, an assumption that demeans the intelligence of the lay reader. Good history is simultaneously informative, thorough, interpretive, analytical, and readable. Historians will find a few improvements over the books written by Rudolph and Veysey, consistent with the new paradigms in history. For example, Lucas is more integrative and does an especially good job at discussing higher education in several regions of the United States, not limiting his primary depiction to the developments in the Northeast. He certainly incorporates some of the recent scholarship on women's education and African American educational history, although at times his depiction of these two groups still conveys the message that they are regarded as exceptions to the norm, rather than fully integrated into the overall history. For example, he includes a small section on women's colleges and coeducation in chapter five. However, at later points in the book, when discussing student involvement in settlement houses (p. 176) and the origins of student affairs (p. 204), he fails to mention the significant contributions made by women in both instances.

    Historians are likely to find two other limitations. Many in the field are calling for scholars to write educational history in a less isolationist fashion by tying educational developments more closely to social and political movements in the larger world. Lucas does this well in a few instances, especially when explaining the effects of Progressivism and McCarthyism. In another example, Lucas states, "Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century the research university began to supplant the college as the model for higher education — contemporaneously with the rise of the business corporation. These two institutions were manifestations of the same social forces" (p. 282). Yet, in the context of explaining the effect of the business mentality on education, Lucas does not mention the impact of other important developments, including, for example, Frederick Winslow Taylor and notions of efficiency. At other times, larger social forces and complexities were left out of his narrative completely. Coeducation, the role of state universities, the growth of high schools, the spread of normal education, the feminization of teaching, and the demand for teachers are all intricately interwoven aspects of educational history. Lucas's failure to illustrate their interrelationships deprives the reader of understanding the rich complexity that is the history of education in the United States.

    A final concern for historians is Lucas's omission of recent scholarship, especially research that casts doubts on traditional interpretations of events. Sprinkled throughout the text are small expressions such as "not all historians agree" or "there is not agreement among historians," etc., indicating that Lucas is willing to acknowledge a lack of agreement among scholars. Yet on a few occasions, important new interpretations are omitted. When discussing the role of White philanthropic support of African American education in the early twentieth century, Lucas does not include the work of historian Jennings L. Wagoner Jr., who takes the White philanthropists in general, and Charles Eliot in particular, to task for supporting industrial education (versus liberal education as proposed by W. E. B. DuBois) as a form of racism.4 In another example, when Lucas describes the origins of community colleges, he slights the contributions of William Rainey Harper of the University of Chicago, who organized the first junior college (p. 219). Lucas also ignores the work of sociologists Steven Brint and Jerome Karabel, who offer a more sinister interpretation of community colleges — one where two-year colleges are seen as vehicles for reinforcing class barriers rather than breaking them down.5

    Lucas had an interesting idea. He wanted a readable history of U.S. higher education that did not neglect its ancient and European origins and that used history to illuminate modern problems and dispel common myths. Such a book may be possible, but this work falls short of that goal. To have been successful, Lucas would have needed more seamless prose, stronger incorporation of recent scholarship, and, most importantly, a tightly argued thesis or interpretive analysis. At one point in the book, Lucas quotes President Charles F. Thwing of Western Reserve on what students should seek in their college curriculum, which provides an appropriate assessment of this book: "Seek less for knowledge and more for the significance of knowledge" (p. 181).
    School of Education
    University of Massachusetts, Amherst

    1 Frederick Rudolph, The American College and University: A History (New York: A. Knopf, 1962; reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990); and Laurence R. Veysey, The Emergence of the American University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965).

    2 One indication of historians' concern over omissions in books such as Rudolph's is the magnitude of scholarship produced in the last two decades on the very topics that received scant attention in earlier historical texts. The high volume and high quality of work on the higher education of women and African Americans in the last twenty years is an excellent example.

    3 He points out, for example, how the medieval university enrolled poor students, as did Harvard in its early years.

    4 Jennings L. Wagoner Jr., "The American Compromise: Charles W. Eliot, Black Education, and the New South," in Education and the Rise of the New South, ed. Ronald K. Goodenow and Arthur O. White (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981), pp. 26–46.

    5 Steven Brint and Jerome Karabel, The Diverted Dream: Community Colleges and the Promise of Educational Opportunity in America, 1900–1985 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

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    Spring 1996 Issue


    Getting to Scale with Good Educational Practice
    By Richard F. Elmore
    Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildering
    The Use and Misuse of State SAT and ACT Scores
    By Brian Powell and Lala Carr Steelman
    A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies
    Designing Social Futures
    The New London Group
    The Politics of Culture
    Understanding Local Political Resistance to Detracking in Racially Mixed Schools
    By Amy Stuart Wells and Irene Serna

    Book Notes

    Moral Development
    Edited by Bill Puka

    Places of Inquiry
    By Burton R. Clark

    Teaching and Learning in History
    Edited by Gaea Leinhardt, Isabel L. Beck, and Catherine Stainton.

    School-Based Management
    Edited by Susan Albers Mohrman and Priscilla Wohlstetter.

    Developing Home-School Partnerships
    By Susan McAllister Swap

    Over the Ivy Walls
    By Patricia Gandara

    Composition as a Cultural Practice
    By Alan W. France

    Fugitive Cultures
    By Henry Giroux

    A New Generation of Evidence
    Edited by Anne Henderson and Nancy Berla.

    By Molly Ladd-Taylor.

    Beyond Tracking
    Edited by Harbison Pool and Jane A. Page

    School-Community Connections
    Edited by Leo C. Rigsby, Maynard C. Reynolds, and Margaret C. Wang.

    Bird by Bird
    By Anne Lamott

    The International Education Quotations Encyclopaedia
    Edited by Keith Allan Noble

    Learning from Strangers
    By Robert S. Weiss

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.