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How the Universities Got This Way

February 4, 2010

Peter D. Salins from the  Center for the American University:

Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University is a short, provocative book that raises many more questions than it answers. Its greatest contribution is that it clearly delineates the development of the American university from its origins in the late 19th century to the many absurdities that characterize it today.

Menand’s exposition of the various key events and trends that have shaped the contemporary American university runs like a stream throughout the book’s occasionally disjointed sections and chapters (the book is largely a compilation of lectures he gave at the University of Virginia). What we learn is that, for the most part, all of the key features of the American university as we know it today emerged full-blown in a burst of academic gestation over a single generation – approximately 1870 to 1900 – largely through the efforts of one man, Charles Eliot, Harvard University’s president from 1869 to 1909. Although Menand reviews the important ways in which the American university has changed since then, describing some of the key twists and turns along the way, he stresses that much has remained the same – often for no particularly good reason.

Menand divides the American university’s historical evolution into three distinct phases: a formative period running from its launch in 1870 under the influence of Harvard’s Eliot through its institutional maturation in the 20th century up to the onset World War II; a “golden age” of rapid expansion in enrollment, funding and prestige that lasted from 1945 to 1970, a product of post-war population and economic growth and the cold war, heavily influenced by another Harvard president, James Bryant Conant; and a post-golden age phase taking us from 1970 to the present, that Frederick Hess (but not Menand) has aptly dubbed the “politically correct” university. [More]

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