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

By Christopher P. Loss | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
Building the New Deal Administrative State

The reorganization of American higher education in the 1920s was followed by a second period of institutional adjustment during the Great Depression. After more than a decade of distant relations with the federal government following the debacle of World War I, educational elites were forced by the painful realities of the worst financial crisis in U.S. history to chart a new course away from their laissez-faire past. Even professors thought it was time to try a different tack: “The cuts contemplated this year are so cruel and destructive as to threaten seriously our whole educational system,” wrote an anguished professor to a newly inaugurated President Roosevelt, in March 1933. “I appeal to you in the name of downtrodden and oppressed teachers, will you not do something for us, the forgotten men and women of America?”1

Although scholars have forgotten it today, higher education helped bridge the gap between citizens and the state during the 1930s. This chapter explores the ways in which higher education served the New Deal, and how that service contributed to the creation of an expansive centralized state in a political culture hostile to big government. The existing scholarship has highlighted the academy’s role in crafting New Deal social and economic policy.2 Yet the role that higher education played in delivering services and programs to citizens, in implementing many of the social and economic policies developed by its own faculty, the coterie of executive-level policymakers known as Roosevelt’s brain trust, has remained unexamined. New Dealers were never beholden to psychological conceptions of human behavior and organizational effectiveness to the extent that business leaders and university administrators had been in the 1920s. But they did seek to adjust and readjust institutions and individuals—and on a truly national scale—in order to build a new and more powerful state. One of the institutions they turned to was higher education. It proved crucial to the New Deal’s achievement of national administrative capacity and to the preparation of citizens for life in a bureaucratic state.

This argument challenges the prevailing belief that the nation’s higher education sector was inconsequential to national policymakers in the 1930s.

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