How College Has Changed

How has college education changed in the past 200 years?

The short answer is that research universities replaced classical universities.

“And while our universities are under greater pressure than ever to emphasize pragmatic results–technological achievements and career-oriented skills–there are voices calling for a reaffirmation of the classic role of education as a way to articulate private aspirations with common cultural meanings so that individuals simultaneously become more fully developed people and citizens of a free society…When education becomes an instrument for individual careerism, it cannot provide either personal meaning or civic culture.

“[In classic universities], the purpose of education was to produce a ‘man of learning’ who would have ‘an uplifting and unifying influence on society.’ Literature, the arts, and science were regarded as branches of a single culture of learning. It was the task of moral philosophy, a required course in the senior year, usually taught by the college president, not only to integrate the various fields of learning, including science and religion, but even more importantly to draw the implications for the living of a good life individually and socially…It was only late in the nineteenth century that the research university replaced the college as the model for higher education…The prestige of natural science as the model for all disciplined knowing and the belief that the progress of science would inevitably bring social amelioration in its wake partially obscured the fact that they unity and ethical meaning of higher education were being lost…There were great positive achievements in this transformation of higher education. The new educational system prepared vastly larger numbers of people for employment in an industrial society, and it included as students those who, because of class, sex, or race, were almost completely excluded in the early nineteenth century. The authors of this book and, in all probability, most of its readers, are beneficiaries of this great change. Yet we must be aware of the costs. One of the major costs of the rise of the research university and its accompanying professionalism and specialization was the impoverishment of the public sphere. Tocqueville as our example [of man of classical education]…was…intelligible to any educated reader. Today’s specialized academics, with notable exceptions, write with a set of intellectual assumptions and a vocabulary shared only by their colleagues” (Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in America by Robert Bellah, pp. 293, 299).


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