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

April 5, 2012

People who dwell in architectural masterpieces generally ignore the design's importance in their day-to-day pursuits. Here, Christopher Loss shows why academics should stop ignoring the higher education system. It has shaped American political development, not just as a tool and partner in statecraft in the first half of the 20th century, but to a growing degree since the 1960s as an institutional counterweight to government in shaping the nation-state.

Loss considers the government-university partnership that was founded around common cause and mutual benefit, and saw bureaucratic consolidation and national growth in the Great War and the New Deal era. Jointly focused on building democratic and global citizenship around reciprocal soldier-student national service notions during the Second World War and the Cold War, this partnership deepened via the implementation of the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights and the 1958 National Defense Education Act. With the impetus of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Higher Education Act, the partnership fractured, with diversity and identity politics flourishing in the cauldron of the 1960s, and it was re-set around private-market citizenship notions starting in the 1970s.

In four chapters covering 1900-1960, Loss keeps a laser focus on democratic citizenship as he weaves a fascinating history of the interactive growth of higher education and the American state. This partnership developed along with the conviction that the best citizen was an educated citizen. Tracing the impact of social-science fields, Loss foregrounds psychology and the way its tools enabled the partners to confront national challenges of war and the Great Depression. The new personnel perspective helped to reinvent government and campus bureaucracies; psychological testing and personality adjustment improved recruitment and promoted well-functioning platoons and campuses with in loco parentis responsibilities. Public-opinion research confirmed education's value for troops in the Second World War and expanded through the Cold War. Higher education ensured "well-adjusted" citizens, ideal types of soldier-citizen and "Joe Campus", too. Loss also shows that higher education was an ideal partner for policy implementation. As programmes grew, the US "broker state" dispersed administration away from national agencies, relying on parastatals to overcome ingrained distrust of centralised power. Higher education, being both localised yet national, provided expertise and citizen access.

The book's final two chapters feel breathless, shifting frame to address the convulsive "rights era" and the massive expansion of state goals, funding and higher education overall. Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" posited higher education as a citizen's right, and a key source of socio-economic mobility and civil rights. Non-white enrolment and activism grew as psychology fractured and identity replaced adjustment. The integration into the academy of Afro-American and women's studies, Loss suggests, was not such a radical departure, but instead built on the traditional approaches of professional white-male identity education. He also sees interdisciplinary identity courses as modelling themselves on NDEA-supported area studies that focused on foreign cultures and societies. Loss concludes that campus diversity strategies, combined with increasing reliance on loans in federal student aid, have created a new kind of free-agency notion of citizenship. He makes an intricate argument that interest-group politics was born of campus exploration of identity and issues-testing in the 1960s and on today's campuses. As mass enrolment levels are reached, a critical mass of citizens have confidence in themselves, rather than in government, to set the national direction.

Loss has succeeded in a very ambitious project, and shows the many ways that higher education serves as a key intermediary between state and citizen. I hope other academics will take up the challenge and build on his very good start.

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

By Christopher P. Loss. Princeton University Press. 344pp, £24.95. ISBN 97806911484. Published 28 December 2011

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