Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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The Eternal Present of the Spot in time: An episodic history of American higher education (Mattingly 2017, American academic cultures)

Posted: Feb 21, 2024 11:02;
Last Modified: Feb 21, 2024 12:02


Mattingly, Paul H. 2017. American Academic Cultures: A History of Higher Education. Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago.

Paul Mattingly’s American Academic Cultures is subtitled “A History of Higher Education.” If we change that to “A History of American Higher Education,” we really have the subject of the book: it is really more a history of higher ed than a discussion of Academic Cultures. But a good one.

The conceit of the book is that universities exist and understand themselves in the context of the times in which they exist — that is to say, operate in an eternal present, to which they adapt by rearranging their “first principles” as required. Or as Mattingly puts it:

In this book American higher learning becomes the product of varied generational cultures, each grounded in their special moment in time, each driven by historically distinct values that produce a special cadre of leaders, problems, and organized responses. History is something less than a discernable continuity; rather, I am assuming, the past affords the present an opportunity to study how different sets of assumptions condition social assumptions and expectations that are both inherently unique and yet passed on to subsequent generations. (1)

This is at once both more and less profound an observation than it may seem. On the one hand, it involves what seems to me to be an unsustainably atomic understanding of history as, in essence, a series of discrete spots in time that stand as nearly epistemological distinct objects of study: the Jeffersonian university as distinct from the antebellum, the 1960s as distinct from the inter-war. Of course this is not how things work(ed): The Harvard of the 1930s was what it was because it was also the Harvard of the 1890s and because it existed in the same world as (and competed with) both the land grants (a product of the late nineteenth-century) and the other members of the (in the 1930s) newly formed “Ivy League.” In some ways reading about the history of education in this book is like watching a drunk man wander a street using a strobe-light: what you see is somebody who keeps showing up in different locations; what you miss is all the wandering steps he took in between the flashes.

But while this approach does tend to lead to a (to my mind somewhat simplified) great men approach to the history of post-secondary education, it also has a more profound implication for those of us in the world of post-secondary education: it reminds us that it was not ever thus in our institutions. As a rule, people working in post-secondary education tend to assume that “history” is a much stronger force in the maintenance of our structures and practices than it really has been. Academics’ famed conservatism is often justified on the grounds both that things are not nearly as good as they used to be, and that a good university/department/discipline/student remains true to its historical origins — the Humanities are now in a crisis because they aren’t respected the way they have always been until now; students are much worse prepared than they’ve ever been before — you wonder sometimes what the high schools are up to nowadays. And so on.

Establishing that this was not the case (or, really, emphasising it, since the idea is widely known in University studies, if not with the universities themselves) is probably the most valuable service this book provides. Breaking the history of American post-secondary education into seven “broadly sketched” and generational academic cultures:

(1) evangelical, (2) Jeffersonian, (3) republican/non-denominational, (4) industrially-driven postgraduate/professional organization, (5) a Progressive (urban-driven) pragmatism with a substantive liberal arts/teaching countercurrent, (6) an international academic discourse that critically probed America’s pragmatic mentalité, and finally (7) a federally driven set of initiatives that both activated pro- and antipragmatic stances — continually reworked values and features of earlier and later eras but realized a corporate model that compromised the university’s once cherished research and teaching independence. (6)

The above passage is Mattingly’s summary of the cultures and it comes after several pages of discussion about the nature of each. But certainly I find it oddly argumentative for a passage that is in essence supposed to be creating a reference grid for the rest of the book (throughout the rest of the book, Mattingly refers to these academic cultures by number: the Harvard under Eliot, for example, is “generational culture #4): I can see how using “evangelical” and “Jeffersonian” to refer to the eighteenth century university cultures provides a kind of short-hand that links the pressures facing colleges in those days; culture #7 “a federally driven set of initiatives that both activated pro- and antipragmatic stances — continually reworked values and features of earlier and later eras but realized a corporate model that compromised the university’s once cherished research and teaching independence,” on the other hand, seems less short-hand than a secondary source in its own right. (He also really discusses an eighth culture in the book: the impact of student activism on the post-WW II military/industrial/research consensus of the 1940s through early 1960s).

But while I think there is something to criticise in the theoretical underpinnings of Mattingly’s approach to his history of American post-secondary education — and while I don’t think the basic numbered generational concept really works as an organising principle — the book remains a solid history of American colleges and universities. And Mattingly is right when he says that it is useful to understand the institutions non-teleologically: that is to say not as the ancestors to today’s institutions but as institutions in their own right dealing with their own historical and contemporary problems — as the drunk under this street light right now and who came from that one, rather than the drunk who is going to end up under the street light we are standing while we wait for him to catch up.

Having said all this, I don’t think there is probably all that much in this book that would surprise anybody who has a sense of the history of post-secondary education in the U.S., from its origins in denominational academies (some of which became prep schools like Philips Andover, others of which went on to become colleges and universities like Harvard, Yale, and William and Mary) through the influence of German research and post-graduate models in the course of the nineteenth century, the impact of the Morrill acts via the Land Grants, to the era of new-school progressivism, post WWII “big science” and the free-speech-based and reactionary liberalism of the 1960s. Most of the main players in this history are the same people we know of from other histories — Clap (1703-1767) and Porter (1811-1892) at Yale; Eliot (1834-1926) and Lowell (1856-1943) at Harvard; Harper (1856-1906) and Hutchins (1899-1977) at Chicago; Gilman (1831-1908) at Johns Hopkins, etc. — and Mattingly’s president-focussed treatment reinforces their own (often considerable) sense of self-importance. He does have some differences from the consensus views: Mattingly is less of a fan of Eliot than usual and is part of a group of scholars who emphasise the difference between U.S. and German academia rather than its direct debt. The book is also reasonably broad in its treatment of women’s colleges and universities and (to a lesser extent) Black. And it has an excellent section on the role of the foundations in shaping the colleges and universities of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — particularly the Carnegie foundation’s use of criteria such as high-school graduates to drive the development of a distinct post-secondary sector (prior to this many colleges and universities had preparatory units attached that provided what we might today call remedial training to underprepared matriculants (i.e. kids today are not less prepared than they were “back in the day”).

The book ends with a chapter that is a bit of an anomaly in relation to what comes before: an account of (and defence of) the development of the humanities in the post-modern era. In this case, Mattingly leaves behind his cultures and presidents and simply defends the current state of the field in history, literary studies, political science, etc. This chapter reads a bit more like a hobby horse than what comes before it (with the exception perhaps of his treatment of the 1960s student culture, for which he appears to have a particularly soft spot). This chapter falls a little into the very trap the author tries to avoid throughout the rest of the book — of dehistoricising the disciplines (or rather understanding them in light of an unexplored and largely idealised history) and defending them from charges of decline that would probably not stand up to intense scrutiny (in this it is useful to read American Academic Cultures alongside James Turner’s Philology: as Turner shows, the modern humanities are, in fact, not themselves really that old, taking their modern form really in the course of Mattingly’s cultures #4 and #5: late 19th and early 20th centuries).





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