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

By Christopher P. Loss | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
Educating Global Citizens in the Cold War

In The Vital Center (1949), Harvard history professor and liberal activist Arthur Schlesinger Jr. predicted the high-stakes global dimensions of the cold war precluded resolution by conventional military means. According to Schlesinger, the combined destructive capacity of the Russian and American militaries ensured that the standoff between “free” and “totalitarian” societies would likely be won nonmilitarily, by the combatant most adept at winning the battle for the “minds and hearts of men.” As the principal national institution responsible for shaping citizens’ hearts and minds during the cold war, American higher education served as a vital mediating institution between citizens and the state, and as a vital weapon in the worldwide struggle against the spread of communism.1

Toughened up by World War II, higher education seemed ready for a new fight. This time the challenge was arguably greater than it had been in World War II. In that war the focus had been on the education of soldiers. The global dimensions of the cold war, however, expanded higher education’s responsibility to encompass the education of civilians, too. In the battle for world supremacy, in which communists were allegedly plotting to overthrow America, and political radicalization was diagnosed as a psychological malady, educating the entire public to “duck and cover” as well as to “stand up and fight” was considered absolutely necessary for national survival.

By examining the state-academic partnership’s effort to educate democratic citizens on and off campus, at home and around the globe, this chapter challenges the existing understanding of the cold war university. While previous studies have focused on the rise of McCarthyism, the rapid institutionalization of the federal-academic research matrix, or both, this chapter adds two new dimensions to that story. First, it explores how the global scale of the bipolar cold war drove the state to create a robust educational foreign policy to contain Soviet communism abroad. Second, it explores how the state’s use of education abroad shaped the development of higher education at home, even before the National Defense Education Act of 1958. In each instance the goal was the same: to mold public opinion in order to help the United States win the cold war.

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