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

By Christopher P. Loss | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
Conclusion
The Private Marketplace of Identity
in an Age of Diversity

By the mid-1970s, the state’s four-decade-long citizenship education project had come full circle. As this book has chronicled, beginning in the Great Depression, the state played an active if obscured role supporting higher education and extending its reach deeper into the life of the people than ever before. After World War II the state’s involvement became much more visible. The enactment of groundbreaking federal legislation revolutionized college going in the United States. The G.I. Bill, the National Defense Education Act, and the Higher Education Act expanded educational opportunity to increasing numbers of Americans—to veterans, to students in defense-related fields of study, and then to everyone else. Believing that higher education created psychologically adjusted citizens capable of fulfilling the duties and obligations of democratic citizenship, the state coordinated and funded this remarkable expansion, transforming higher education into a key mediating institution between citizens and the state.

This argument reconfigures the dominant historical narrative of the twentieth-century state-academic partnership. Existing scholarship focuses on the rise of the research matrix and the impact of university experts in American government. But the birth of “big science” is not the only story worth telling— and as the education of tens of millions of Americans attests, it might not even be the most important. After World War I new psychological understandings of human and organizational development became embedded within the university structure in ways that ultimately changed how citizenship was defined. Higher education’s promise was first glimpsed during the Great Depression. But its full potential as a tool of statecraft was not truly realized until World War II, when the state deployed education to build better soldiers and rewarded veterans with generous education benefits in exchange for their wartime sacrifices. This reciprocal conception of educated citizenship endured until the

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