It all started innocently enough. It was 1993. I was in my junior year of college and needed to talk to someone. So, after gathering my courage, I picked up the phone and dialed Penn State University president Joab Thomas.1 He didn’t answer. His secretary did. I told her I loved Penn State but was distraught over the direction of the institution, particularly its approach to undergraduate education. I explained that many of the general education classes were too big, too impersonal, and that I needed a one-on-one meeting with the president to let him know what I thought. She took my name and student number and said she’d call me back. Moments later the phone rang. I picked up. The president would be delighted to meet me, she said. We agreed to a time. I promised to be there.
President Thomas greeted me warmly. He offered me a Pepsi. I accepted. He asked me to sit down, to share my concerns. I did. He listened intently, nodded often, occasionally uttering a sympathetic “hmmm” followed closely by an affirming “yes.” When I finished, he thanked me for my time. Without missing a beat he then asked me if I’d serve as an undergraduate representative to the Penn State Faculty Senate. Thrilled, I jumped at the chance. A few weeks later I became a member of the undergraduate life committee.
I did not realize it at the time, but that moment marked my introduction to the politics that lay near the center of this book. And one way or another, I’ve spent most of my time ever since thinking, reading, and writing about the politics of American higher education: What is the purpose of higher learning? How does it benefit society? And what sorts of citizens and politics does it produce? In short, what happens to students when they go to college—when they spend four years, as the historian Richard Hofstadter memorably put it, in 1968, “suspended between … the external world, with all its corruption and evils and cruelties, and the splendid world of our imagination?”2
I have been fortunate to have lived most of my adult life hovering somewhere between the real world and the world of my imagination. I like both places. And I’ve been lucky to have had comfortable homes wherever I’ve landed. It is my pleasure to acknowledge the institutions and individuals that have helped me along the way.
This book started as a dissertation at the University of Virginia. I split my time between the Curry School of Education and the Corcoran Department of History, ultimately doing doctorates in both. At the Curry School, I’d like to thank Annette Gibbs, Brian Pusser, and Jennings Wagoner, who taught me a lot about the history of education. In the Corcoran Department of History, I’m indebted to Ed Ayers, Joe Kett, and Brian Balogh. Brian was my dissertation ad-