Andrew Dickson White, founding president of Cornell University

As I mentioned in my post the other day, the starting point for many discussions of the modern American university is frequently Laurence Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University, first published in 1965. Purely as a work of intellectual history, Veysey’s volume still stands out. It is clear, comprehensive, interesting, thoroughly-researched, and original. I imagine that after first reading it, most people would have a similar reaction: Thank you for making this make sense, and for such an entertaining journey.

Veysey’s main thesis is that the modern American university took shape between the Civil War and World War I, and that the basic arrangements of that period remain with us to this day. While American colleges certainly existed and proliferated before the Civil War (mostly thanks to various Protestant denominations), the scene was transformed in this period through government investment (the Morrill Act, which established land grant universities, was enacted in 1862), the alignment of higher education with industry, and the importation of the German university model by the 10,000 Americans who earned PhDs at the University of Berlin and Germany’s other institutions in the mid-19th century. The increasing industrialization, urbanization, and ethnic and religious diversification of this period also had immense effects on the contours of the American academy.

Veysey argues that American universities founded or transformed in this period emerged out of three various understandings about the purpose of the university, which he identifies as: i) Service; ii) Research; and iii) Liberal Culture. The service ideal postulated that the university existed to train citizens who would be of service to society as professionals and political leaders. Andrew D. White, founding president of Cornell University, took this tack, bringing professional schools under the umbrella of the university. The purpose of the university in this understanding is to be responsive to, and at the forefront of, society.

The research ideal was modeled on the German university, and prized original scholarly research (wissenschaft, or what Americans came to refer to as Science) above all else. A university was to be at the apex of an educational system, and the faculty were to be its most honored individuals. A university did not exist for the sake of professional education, but rather to create the space in which a professor, surrounded by a small number of highly qualified graduate students who themselves would become professors, could produce new knowledge. Johns Hopkins, which originally did not have an undergraduate program, was modeled on this ideal. Henry Tappan’s vision for the University of Michigan, which led to one of the early developments of a public education system in America, also drew inspiration from Germany.

The Liberal Culture ideal, the third in Veysey’s typology, was understood in at least two different ways—which Bruce Kimball is very helpful in understanding. As Kimball observes in his outstanding book Orators and Philosophers, one way in which “the liberal arts” is understood sees reading the classics of civilization as handing down a tradition, forming the young adult mind and body into a person who does what liberal (meaning free—people with leisure) do. Kimball calls this the oratio ideal, in which the liberal arts teach the discipline of public speaking and influence, the work of only free people in the ancient world. The second version of the liberal arts, according to Kimball, follows the ratio ideal, in which studying the classics of Western thought trains one to be a critical, independent thinker (a rational person). According to this understanding, studying ancient Greek philosophy is less about doing what gentlemen do than about becoming truly free-minded. While Yale of the 19th and early 20th centuries might typify the oratio ideal, Robert M. Hutchins’s University of Chicago would exemplify the ratio ideal.

Veysey argues that these ideals do not remain distinct, but ultimately come to overlap. Johns Hopkins creates an undergraduate college; Cornell becomes a research institution; Yale allows electives and brings its affiliated engineering school inside the university; Hutchins ultimately leaves Chicago with Mortimer Adler to lead St. Johns College, where they can more fully develop the ratio approach of Great Books, while Chicago preserves some elements of his program and takes on aspects of the other ideals. (All of this leads to the situation Clark Kerr would dub “the multiversity” in his 1963 classic The Uses of the University, which will be the subject of a future post.)

Veysey’s typology, along with Kimball’s analysis of liberal education, is very useful for clarifying the confusion that often sets in when trying to understand many institutions of higher education. The tension between research and teaching, perhaps the most pronounced feature of academe, becomes a bit more understandable when the historical roots are uncovered. Likewise for the tensions between professional education and the humanities, or between ‘student life’ (generally understood as part of the service ideal) and academics.

Remarkably, these tensions have remained consistent features of American higher education for a century. As Veysey demonstrates, the four decades before 1910 were the time of creation, transformation, and experimentation—the era of great university presidents, men who used their middle names. After World War I, the general arrangement of universities as institutions, including the specialization of fields, the creation of departments, the balance of undergraduate core curriculum and elective courses, the inclusion of professional schools in the university, all of these were in place. And they have remained in place ever since.

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