Episode 2 Bonus | A short history of higher education & universities in the US

This bonus episode includes a part of the conversation for Episode 2 with Dr. Teresa Mangum (University of Iowa) and Dr. Leonard Cassuto (Fordham University).

During the conversation Dr. Cassuto provided an articulate yet succinct history of the higher education institutions in the US and connections between the present problems in academia and that institutional history. In this bonus episode (7 mins), we reproduce Dr. Cassuto’s remarks in full.

You can listen to the full episode with Dr. Teresa Mangum and Dr. Leonard Cassuto at this page.


Dr. Leonard Cassuto

Leonard Cassuto is the author or editor of nine books on American literature and culture, most The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education. He is the author of “The Graduate Adviser,” for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Other recent books include The Cambridge History of the American Novel (General Editor, 2011), and The Cambridge Companion to Baseball (2011), winner of the Best Anthology Award from the North American Society of Sports Historians.

His Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories was nominated for the Edgar and Macavity Awards and named one of the Ten Best Books of 2008 in the crime and mystery category by The Los Angeles Times. Cassuto is also an award-winning journalist who writes on subjects ranging from science to sports, in venues from The New York Times to salon.com. His website is www.lcassuto.com.

Audio Transcript

[Leonard Cassuto]: So I want to tell a big story in relation to this, that Teresa is talking about the how, how difficult it is now to collaborate and to innovate in today’s University. So I’m telling the big story, that the way that higher education began in the United States was in part of what is what what historians now call the Age of the College. That the first the first college in the United States was Harvard, which was founded in 1636. And for over 200 years, the only institutions of higher education in the United States were colleges. They tended to be small, and they focused on preparing students for service. Harvard was originally founded to prepare students to enter the clergy. But not.. it wasn’t.. didn’t take very long for the mission to secularize. And the idea was that you were preparing students to become productive citizens in the enterprises of their choice. So you could say that the goal of colleges was to prepare students, to produce students educated students who could go out and contribute to society. After the Civil War, and as the United States industrialized, universities came to the United States, research universities. And the the people who were founding them had in mind, among other things, the model that was being propagated in Germany, where some American academics had gone to study for periods of time. The American American research universities were not copies of German research universities. Instead, they were inflected by the by the American surrounding. But and universities were founded as either either out of whole cloth by philanthropists as we were talking about earlier. So the John D, Rockefeller provided most of the money to start the University of Chicago, Cornelius Vanderbilt to start Vanderbilt and so forth. Or they could be grafted onto existing colleges. So Harvard College becomes Harvard University and Yale College, Yale University, or they could be founded by states. So the… you had public universities, which were coming into being. State legislatures weren’t grant were sub sub minting money and also providing the land.

So all of these universities, though, that when they when they were coming into being they were being informed by the research model that prevailed in Europe, and the the mission statements of early American universities, were guided by not the preparation of students necessarily so much as the creation of new knowledge. That this is what research is, its discovery. And so the, the idea was, and this is made explicit in the in the founding documents of many, many American universities, during this period of generally about 1880, or 90, to 1910, or so. There were dozens of universities that were being founded in the United States during that time. The idea was that the pursuit of knowledge or research would be primary, and teaching the teaching of students secondary. That’s almost an exact quotation from the founding documents of the University of Chicago. So this could vary to a greater or lesser extent. The legislation that created public universities, like the University of Iowa, does mention instruction of students, that these universities were coming into being as research universities.

And there was a tension, attention that persists between the mission of the college to prepare educated students to enter society. And the mission of the university, which is to create new knowledge and have teaching be is an almost a byproduct of that. That tension has animated higher education since the age of the university. And it has been mostly a productive tension, partly because there were ample resources for both sides. And both kinds of institutions have perhaps persisted through the history of American higher education.

However, in recent years, as resource as the resource base, has grown smaller, the friction that can exist between these two missions has become more and more clear. And it leads I think, to some of the of the of the practical problems that Teresa [Mangum] began by describing a few minutes ago. And if it’s not that American higher education should discard the research mission and embrace teaching, nor vice versa. Rather, I think that we all benefit, if we uncover the assumptions that were that are buried in history that underlie and inform the way that our structures are the way that they the way that they look, the way that they are the way that they’ve existed. If we uncover those assumptions, and we examine them, and we and we, we update them in the ways that we can and we should. Some of them, we may want to leave where they are. Because higher education, the university is one of the, is and ought to be one of the most conservative institutions in American life. And I say conservative with a small ‘c’ — shouldn’t be blown about by fads. I don’t mean political conservatism, right wing conservatism, but rather the belief in the persistence. And the of something that’s, that’s, that’s worthwhile.

Higher Education is one of the few institutions in American life that has roots in the Middle Ages. And so we don’t need to blow it up. But we should be looking at the ways in which it has evolved and the ways in which it should evolve in order to meet the needs of a need full time. Now.


Episode Producer:
Deepthi Murali, PhD Futures Now! Producer

PhD Futures Now! is produced by the Humanities Without Walls Consortium with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.