When populism met higher education

What does populism mean for education? Until recently this would have been a purely academic question in every sense of the phrase. Recent political developments, including populisms on the right and left, have suddenly rendered this issue a lively one, at least for those of us thinking about education.

The University and the People Envisioning American Higher Education in an Era of Populist Protest - Scott M. GelberScott Gelber offers a very useful historical perspective. His The University and the People (2011) explores the impact of late nineteenth century American populism on higher education. Gelber focuses on several states (Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina) and dives deeply into primary sources.

It’s a very rich book, and one I hesitate to summarize, since the text emphasizes complexity and diverse politics, but some key themes emerge. Gelber sees the Populist strategy for higher ed as focusing on three goals: increasing accessibility to higher ed for poor people, especially farmers growing practical and vocational curricular introducing the masses to the academic discipline of political economy. (168)

Framing these desires is an acute consciousness of inequality. At a large scale this famously motivated Populists in general. When it comes to higher ed, such awareness drove multiple policies, like free tuition and expanded ag programs. At times these policies contradicted each other, such as pushing for a university’s improved academic reputation, while seeking open enrollment, or advocating vocational education which did little to address class differences (118).

I’m impressed by Gelber’s even-handedness and attention to local variations. He consistently refuses to collapse all populists into a single, clear ideology, and instead teases out differences and nuance. Examples abound, like Populists trying to end varsity football in Kansas (!) (48) or cannon-equipped students squabbling with a pistol-packing guard in North Carolina (51), or University of Nebraska alumni recalling a time when it was unfashionable to be seen as having money on campus (85). Gender politics are hard to pin down in this era which saw man advocate for college-level home ec as both a conserving and liberating idea (106). Populists were equally capable of seeking to increase or decrease public institutions’ funding (148ff).

What can we learn from this account of academic struggles more than a century ago? We can see once more how some post-secondary education debates persist, namely the fight between increasing access and academic quality, along with the struggle between practical and… other education (99-100). We can hear echoes of the great push to open up higher ed in the 1960s, and today’s free tuition movement, and Sara Goldrick-Rab’s work, in their call for “free tuition, scholarships, campus work programs, and low-cost room and board.” (84)

There were even attempts to boost university income through jacking up fees, which were condemned as classist (93-4). Co-ops appeared (95-6). There are echoes of today’s on-campus wellness and health movements with the Populists’ desire to instruct students in both physical and mental activity (119). There’s even a familiar gap between political and academic desires to give students a framework for social engagement, when most seem to have been looking for better-paying jobs.  Anti-black Populists obviously find echoes in today’s hard right.

Academic freedom was a different creature in the 1890s than now, of course. Populists either pushed to fire or retain faculty and administrators for political reasons, as did their opponents (126ff). The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) would go on to defend and expand academic freedom, partly as a response to the Populist moment (145).

I was very surprised to see political economy emerge as a radical curricular topic (110, 128ff). It makes sense for the period as far as my limited understanding goes, since both economics and political science were rising as intellectual disciplines, and apparently offered handles on changing American society. I’m not sure what today’s equivalent would be – surely not poli sci or econ. Perhaps the humanities fields associated with social justice, like gender studies, critical theory, minority studies play a parallel role in mobilizing both student activism and public opposition.

Gelber portrays a wide range of academic responses to Populism. Some faculty and administrators opposed the movement at all points, while others took up the cause (65, 87). For examples of the former, one prep school leader argued that “In the republic of letters there is always an aristocracy.” (71) “Yale University president Timothy Dwight… predicted that the presence of informal students would ‘demoralize’ regular students.” (79) Some deemed populist policies to be part of socialism or communism (91). I wonder how today’s educators respond to contemporary populism, and to what extent those responses echo the 1890s.

The point which resonated most with me, as someone who works in and researches higher education, is the Populists’ argument that higher education reinforced and reproduced class inequality (66 etc). This was based on the reality that late 19th-century college students tended to be from the upper classes (86), sometimes supported by the Greek system (88). Populist insurgents called for academia to change, to oppose inequality through research and practice.

A reader of the Populist Wadesboro Plowboy warned politicians that the people had “made up their minds to stop the appropriation to the University and other institutions of learning for the rich and their pets.” (153)

America isn’t there now, but between populisms of the right and left, we might be close.

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4 Responses to When populism met higher education

  1. Elizabeth Dalton says:

    Thanks for the review — I’ll have to pick up a copy. Two more references you might find helpful:

    Wilbrink, Ben. “Assessment in Historical Perspective.” Studies in Educational Evaluation 23, no. 1 (1997): 31–48.
    Offers a description of how the nature of higher education curriculum shifted in the mid-1800s, concurrent with the transition of universities from purely liberal arts institutions for the elite to preparation of a much wider candidate pool for the professions. The emphasis shifted to what could be objectively assessed as the method of assessment shifted from individual master validation to competitive prize-based assessment, and finally, to examination as a requirement for professional practice.

    Greene, Maxine. The Public School and the Private Vision: A Search for America in Education and Literature. New York: The New Press, 2007.
    Explores attempts to construct “co-education” around a common curriculum, referencing writings by educational reformers such as Horace Mann as well as contemporary literary authors such as Hawthorn and Melville. Co-education is a populist notion itself, but a communalist one, rather than an individualist one.

  2. Is it time to re-read Thorstein Veblen’s “The Higher Learning In America,” which suggests the limits of Populism’s impact on higher ed, at least among certain elite colleges? One unintended consequence, perhaps, of the Populists’ emphasis on “practical” subjects and political economy was a reinforcement of the idea that higher education is primarily about preparation for economic participation in society.

  3. Interesting. A more comprehensive perspective on populism can be found here, titled “Populism and the ‘Masters of Mankind” also on WordPress.

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