Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the 20th Century

By Christopher P. Loss | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
Introduction
The Politics of American Higher Education
in the Twentieth Century

During the twentieth century, political leaders and university officials turned to one another with increasing frequency in order to build an expansive national state and educational system. They abandoned their shared tradition of laissez-faire relations and forged a powerful partnership that transformed the country’s plural system of colleges and universities into a repository of expertise, a locus for administrative coordination in the federal government, and a mediator of democratic citizenship. Slowly during the interwar period, then rapidly after World War II, the state and higher education joined forces to fight economic depressions and poverty, to wage world wars hot and cold, and to secure the rights of previously marginalized Americans. Ironically, at the very moment the partnership reached its peak in the 1960s, it turned sour, only to reconstitute itself, if in a different form, following the conservative political ascendance of the 1980s. Between Citizens and the State tells this story.

To date, scholars have only captured a sliver of the relationship between higher education and the American state. This book advances the literature on the emergence of the American university beyond the rise of the professions and the growth of the federal-academic research matrix. Without question the ascendance of large-scale scientific research during World War II radically altered the nature of federal-academic relations, and it is exhibit A in the birth of what some scholars call the “proministrative state.” But the emphasis on “big science,” and the handful of elite institutions and experts that produced it, has concealed other developments in state-academic relations that occurred outside federally funded labs before and after World War II. Throughout the last century, state policymakers and academic administrators turned the nation’s colleges and universities into multipurpose institutions that not only produced cutting-edge defense and medical research but also mediated access to democratic citizenship for millions of Americans.1

Why has higher education’s role in twentieth-century American life been so narrowly drawn? There are two reasons. One is the scholarly fixation on the

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