From democracy to diversity: the politics of American higher education in the twentieth century

Loss, Christopher Perry, Department of History, University of Virginia
Balogh, Brian, Department of History, University of Virginia
Kett, Joseph, Department of History, University of Virginia
Leffler, Melvyn, Department of History, University of Virginia
Pusser, Brian, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

This dissertation traces the impact of higher education on citizenship and the political development of the American state in the twentieth century. I argue that World War I precipitated a long period of bureaucratic reinvention-both inside the university and between the university and state-that ultimately converted higher education into a key adjunct of the New Deal administrative state. The effects of this new institutional arrangement on the meaning of democratic citizenship surfaced during World War II when opinion leaders and expert psychologists discovered that educated citizens were better citizens-a point seemingly substantiated by veterans' surprising success under the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights. Cold war policymakers, convinced higher education created prosperous, civic minded, psychologically adjusted democratic citizens worthy of special rights and privileges, embarked upon a global education strategy that culminated in the 1958 National Defense Education Act.

Yet the state's idealized definition of democratic citizenship proved untenable. By the 1960s, the state's rigidly defined conception of the educated citizen, which had been constructed around the memory of the hero citizen-soldiers of World War II, crumbled under pressure from black and women students and their advocates in university administration, on Capitol Hill, and in the White House. Provoked by the alienation of the modem bureaucratic university and by what they perceived as an imperialist, racist, and sexist bureaucratic state, these students incited a national debate about the uses of the university in a democratic society. The ensuing political struggle between students and administrators, which was framed by the passage of civil rights legislation and the 1965 Higher Education Act, challenged the relationship between democratic citizenship and higher learning and paved the way for a new animating principle in the post-1960s university. Diversity became the new ideal that would assure a citizenry prepared to meet future challenges. But diversity did not dismantle higher education's role in shaping the political commitments and mobilizing strategies of its students. Although the post-l 960s campus produced few overt displays of student-led mass political action, it was never the political wasteland critics often claimed it to be. In fact, the post-1960s university continued to be a politically dynamic institution if in less obvious ways. I conclude my dissertation with an analysis of how the creation of black and women's studies programs in the 1970s signaled a new age of rights-based politics founded upon a new mode of issue-group mobilization that mirrored in miniature the political organization of the American state itself.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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