The University and The People: Envisioning American Higher Education in an Era of Populist Protest

A 19th-century farmers' movement has left its mark on US universities, finds Francisco Ramirez

September 8, 2011

This book challenges the classical interpretation of academic populism in 19th-century America, an interpret- ation that emphasises populist demagoguery and the effort to control state universities. More than a century after academic populism was defeated, its influence lingers throughout US higher education. That, argues Scott Gelber, is because the populists were not anti-higher education but anti-elitist. The latter view resonates deeply with American popular culture.

So what did academic populists demand, why did they fail, and what did they achieve despite failing? Here, Gelber focuses on the core demands associated with the leadership of the Populist Party, paying particular attention to educational ramifications in North Carolina, Kansas and Nebraska. These look like affirmative action demands on behalf of rural students, a point not lost on the author.

The populists started from the premise that rural students were academically disadvantaged but deserving of the opportunity to benefit from higher education. Thus, they demanded greater university accessibility for rural students and a university climate that would make it possible for them to succeed. These demands led to concrete pressures for open access and remedial courses in state universities and also to opposition to admissions standards and efforts to upgrade these standards. The last were seen as unfair devices that would keep rural students out of state universities. The populists favoured greater access but were highly critical of what the universities had to offer. The populists wanted more vocational subjects and greater regional service, and demanded courses in political economy that would better prepare rural students for positions of civic leadership, and they wanted these new developments to be valued within state universities. Their underlying assumption was that all students would benefit from universities that were more genuinely universities of the people.

Therein lies the rub. Higher education institutions have an easier time incorporating new folks than changing the terms of incorporation. And like contemporary reformers, the populists were challenging the terms of incorporation. They wanted more than to be allowed in; they wanted to transform the content of public higher education. When the populists won, there were changes that included greater scepticism regarding expert academic and administrative authority. Populist political victories led to populist faces in both the faculty and the board of trustees.

In part, academic populism failed because it could not cope with two dilemmas. First, a lot of rural kids went to state universities not to become better farmers but to get off the farm. They often opted for the more traditional liberal arts subjects that the emerging educational progressives privileged. Second and more importantly, the institutional response to populist demands often took the form of creating differentiated universities that were more vocational and service-oriented. The populists did not grasp the extent to which the new universities would also be less valued and less well resourced. In the US landscape, tiered state universities became a commonplace.

But it will not do simply to dismiss academic populism. Its demands fuelled not only the greater accessibility of higher education early on in the US but also the more utilitarian charter of the nation's universities. The latter have always been less buffered from their environment than have their European counterparts. Thus, they have been more responsive to external demands. Many studies emphasise the role of industry and its captains in shaping US universities. Gelber reminds us that populist pressures also left their mark on the admissions policies and curricular content of these institutions.

Furthermore, he recognises that while advocates of affirmative action embrace the egalitarian feature of academic populism, opponents evoke its majoritarian aspect. Both assume that state universities should be responsive to public pressures, but they differ in what they see as the public good. Therein lies the complex educational legacy admirably analysed in this book.

The University and The People: Envisioning American Higher Education in an Era of Populist Protest

By Scott M. Gelber

University of Wisconsin Press 264pp, £18.50

ISBN 9780299284640

Published 28 September 2011

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