Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Presentby Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz
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"Based on subtle, imaginative readings of autobiographies, memoirs, fiction and secondary sources, [Campus Life] tells the story of the changing mentalities of American undergraduates over two centuries."—Michael Moffatt, New York Times Book Review
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Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present
By Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1987 Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz
All rights reserved.
Introduction: The Worlds That Undergraduates Make
In the spring of 1983, a black freshman at the University of Michigan summed up his first year in college: "I'm having no fun." The students around him were so bent on work that they walked to class without looking up and then rushed back to study: "nobody is willing to stop and talk to each other." All he heard around him was GPA—grade point average: "three letters that I am tired of hearing." He mimicked what he disliked: "Why should I mess up my GPA? Why should I do this to my GPA?" He had come to college because he saw it as a chance "to get away, to find yourself." But college had turned into "study, study, study." With everyone thinking about grades, he felt cheated: "You don't have time to expand."
A white friend down the hall agreed. He had not found what he had looked for in coming to college, "that other side of college life besides academics." He did not hold his professors or deans responsible for the competitive, tense atmosphere. Rather he blamed his fellow students, who—"too ready to grow up"—wanted to jump from high school to career. What he heard around him was "I have to get a 3.5 to get to med school." As a result "the stuff in between is kind of lost," what he had come to college for: the "freedom to find out what to do."
As these freshmen realized, this is a difficult time to be a college student. The pressures are great; the life, often grim. Although undergraduates enjoy partying on weekends that can begin on Wednesday night, they confine their friendships to the narrow social groups from which they spring. For some, extracurricular activities form part of their work or recreation, but the college no longer inspires any sense of community or service. Few college students ask existential questions about the meaning of life. As they compete for the grades that will get them into professional schools, they allow themselves little room to grow and become. College moves them along to a job or a career, but for most it no longer serves to liberate their souls.
What is the cause? Are undergraduates really only children of whom we should expect little? No; earlier collegians, equally youthful, were not content to be dependent sons and daughters. They demanded to be considered adults. Are contemporary students less villains than victims, caught by economic forces beyond their control? Perhaps; but other generations of students confronted in college the harsh challenges of an unfriendly future and yet allowed themselves the pleasures and the pains of an intense college world. What makes the 1980s different?
The answer lies in the collective experience of undergraduates inherited from the nineteenth century and transformed in the 1960s and 1970s. In entering college, freshmen step into a complex environment containing alternative student cultures, each with its own standards and values. These particular undergraduate worlds give form to students' lives and meaning to their experience. Collegiate canons shape how students perceive both their formal education of courses, classes, and books and their informal education of social relationships, organizations, and rituals. Although college authorities have attempted to mold undergraduate worlds, they have succeeded only in setting the outer parameters of permissible behavior. College faculty has seen itself as determining students' lives through the courses that it teaches and through the power of personal influence. But professorial words and gestures have been filtered through the evolving cultures of students' own devising.
Eighteen-year-olds who leave home to enter college feel as if they are embarking on a great adventure in which all the choices are theirs. In part this is true, for the college world contains a number of possibilities which give the appearance of choice. But college students enter a social order that, like the communities they are leaving, has emerged from an earlier time. The undergraduate cultures that today's students inherit have traditions that shape the way those within them see their situation and act.
The multiple contexts in which these traditions operate have undergone radical transformation. As the United States became an industrial nation and world power, higher education shifted from a marginal to a central force in the polity. The number and proportion of young people going to college greatly increased. Their socioeconomic composition shifted. And the relation between higher education and their futures changed.
In 1800 roughly 2 percent of young men went to college. They were a motley crew, ranging in age from the early teens to the thirties. The youngest were the sons of Southern landed and Northern mercantile wealth eager for the polish of the gentleman. Also young were the offspring of the small urban professional elite, in college to attain skills comparable to their fathers'. The oldest came from modest farms with the clear intention to become ministers. At first counting in 1840, 16,233 students were reported in 173 institutions.
The nineteenth century saw important changes in higher education. As the population rose, the numbers of enrolled students increased: by 1880 there were 85,378 students in 591 colleges and universities. New types of schools came into being, offering courses that challenged the traditional curriculum. Through the Morrill Act of 1862, the national government attempted to foster agricultural and mechanical training and the spread of public institutions. Philanthropists endowed separate colleges for women and blacks, and some institutions integrated them. But despite these changes, until the 1880s the proportion of young Americans in college remained relatively stable.
Agrarian and mercantile America was largely uninterested in formal credentials and gave youths the chance to learn occupations in a wide variety of ways. College had limited usefulness. For well-placed young men, it proffered the good times they had come to expect, contacts with others of their own kind, and the foundation for the culture of gentlemen. For the small numbers of the urban elite with professional fathers, college promised to extend status into the next generation. For the striving, it opened a way into the professions, yielding entry into the middle class and at least a modest income. By the late nineteenth century, such industrious students were shifting from the ministry to education, journalism, engineering, scientific agriculture, pharmacy, and medicine. They now included women, who, like their brothers, came to college for general culture or to train for the professions, especially for schoolteaching. For young men looking forward to careers in business as entrepreneurs or as managers, however, there was little incentive to go to college. Far better to begin working early and gain useful experience. Even some doctors or lawyers might bypass college (or even secondary school) and study with a practitioner or go to an independent professional school without benefit of the liberal arts.
By the end of the nineteenth century the rate of college-going began its steady rise. In 1880 less than 2 percent of those between eighteen and twenty-one attended college; by 1890, 3 percent did so. In the first half of the twentieth century, the numbers roughly doubled every ten or twenty years. By 1900, 4 percent of those between eighteen and twenty-one attended college; by 1920, 8 percent; by 1940, 16 percent; by 1950, 30 percent; by 1970, 48 percent.
What explains this increase? Changes within the educational system provided the necessary support. Higher education built on the elementary and secondary school system that vastly expanded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, preparing larger numbers and proportions of children over increasing numbers of years. Except among those training to become schoolteachers, however, this did not in itself generate new college enrollments. In the course of the twentieth century, the ratio of students in colleges and universities to those in primary and secondary schools shifted from in 80 to 1 in 10. This suggests that more important than the number of students prepared to go to college was the proportion of those prepared students who chose to enter college. The twentieth century saw the founding of new institutions of higher education to attract students. So had the nineteenth century. The difference in the twentieth century was that students came to the colleges, old and new.
The true source of the pull of higher education on American youth was the transformation of American society. In the nineteenth century the United States became an industrial nation. Beginning with textile mills and railroads before the Civil War, the application of machinery to the process of production vastly increased the output and the scale of manufacturing. After the war the development of heavy industry and growing production greatly intensified the process. Natural increase and immigration swelled the population. Agriculture, which once occupied the bulk of the population, required fewer hands. Changes in sources of power from water to coal brought factories to cities. As manufacturing was added to mercantile enterprises, cities grew and spread across the continent and attracted dwellers from American farms and from Europe and Asia. The wave of consolidation gathered firms into large combinations. Beginning with the railroads and the federal government, bureaucratic organization spread to these combines. American business and manufacturing corporations began to hire new kinds of employees: a vast army of white-collar workers, such as bookkeepers and clerks, and a smaller number of professionals, such as corporate lawyers, accountants, engineers, and architects. Growing urban populations and greater wealth meant the increasing need of goods and services of all kinds and the more frequent resort to experts—doctors, dentists, architects, and lawyers. In the four decades after 1870 the number of professionals increased over four times to total 1,150,000 by 1910. In the same period, those in finance, real estate, and trade more than trebled, amounting by 1910 to 2,760,000.
In the post—Civil War years higher education was altering in form and content. Out of the many experiments of the nineteenth century came the university with its new approach to knowledge and conception of the curriculum. Empiricism reshaped the liberal arts. In addition, with the decline of apprenticeship, frankly vocational subjects, such as engineering and accounting, became college-level courses. Innovative teachers introduced empirical methods and reshaped graduate and professional education to incorporate scientific and technological knowledge. Newly created or strengthened professional associations devised standards for entry that required graduation from accredited schools and licensing examinations. Professional schools, once independent, associated with universities and increasingly required a B.A. degree for entrance.
As work and education in America changed, so did the prospects for youth and the place of college in their lives. While the bulk of white-collar positions required only high school, those that promised movement upward through management gradually began to prefer college men. American business had always favored those with capital and connections. College became the place to extend these benefits, broaden acquaintances, and learn how to lead. As more and more middle-class youth came to college, some of them aspired to these advantages. They saw college as instrumental for acquiring not only business and accounting skills but also contacts and style. By the 1920s going to college became normal for youth from the broad reaches of the middle class. They came from American farms and cities because they perceived college as their principal access to jobs with futures—careers.
While many in the middle class had their eyes on business, some looked to the professions, old and new. In this they were joined by some sons of wealth and by the small number of working-class youth in college. Family backing, connections (now enhanced by college), imagination, grit, and luck might account for financial success in many businesses, but, especially in larger corporations, engineering provided one of the surer routes to management. The substantial salaries of the new vocations and professions demanded competence proven through disciplined training. The elite looked to professions, such as corporate law, that promised the highest prestige and income. The few of the aspiring poor who entered college continued to prepare themselves for occupations that promised upward mobility.
For those hoping to enter the professions, new standards began to apply. An engineering degree or admission into law school may have required only passing grades, but to some employers academic achievement began to matter. Industry looked to high marks in the hiring of engineers. To make law review became a source of prestige respected by prominent law firms.
By the early twentieth century, a coherent, though heterogeneous, educational system had emerged in which the institutions of higher education sat at the top. Children moved up the grade ladder of elementary and secondary schools. Upon graduation, those with backing and motivation entered college. In 1910 there were approximately 150,000 undergraduates in American colleges and universities. Roughly one-third took the classical course, as it was then defined, to prepare themselves in a general way for business or for professional school. Two-thirds took courses geared to vocations, such as engineering or accounting. After receiving a B.A. or its equivalent, those intent on a profession, such as law or medicine, that required an advanced degree then attended a graduate school within a university.
College students increasingly went to schools under public control. At the turn of the century, there were almost 3 students in public colleges and universities for every 2 in private; by 1965 there were almost 2 in public institutions for every 1 in private. The two-year community college arose to open access to higher education to new segments of the population, claiming enrollments of over one-half million by 1950.
Certain colleges and universities became competitive by the mid-twentieth century. Their graduates fared far better in occupation, leadership, and income. In all institutions, but especially those with open admissions, grades became the means to sort students. Poor grades forced some to leave, flunking out. Of those who remained, some stayed in place, merely graduating. Others made high grades and advanced to graduate and professional schools. In 1960 over 75 percent of Yale students anticipated postgraduate training, in contrast to 20 percent in 1920 going on to graduate work.
Despite the emergence of a stratified educational system channeling its most achieving students into the professions, a dual relation between the American occupational structure and higher education has persisted. Although in the twentieth century more positions of high income and prestige have required high grades in college and professional school, sectors have remained where academic achievement has counted for little, and family background, confirmed only by college admission, all. Until the 1960s the children of alumni still had preference in Ivy League colleges and universities. Right connections led to the right clubs and the right firms. Quotas in private institutions limited the number of Jews; outside the Negro colleges or the public institutions of the North, racism effectively barred all but a few blacks. Jews might make law review, but discrimination within major corporate law firms limited their entry into jobs and partnerships and relegated them to less prestigious and less lucrative forms of legal practice. Although discrimination has eroded in the last decades, the white Gentile enclave has been partially able to protect itself from the claims of academic achievement. Moreover, entrepreneurship continues to bring rewards to a few. Although large firms have dominated the economy, a sector has remained open to small business. Here, where good fortune, determination, and an idea or product count, no high-level educational credentials have been necessary, although they might help.
Excerpted from Campus Life by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz. Copyright © 1987 Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author
Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz is the Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor of American Studies and History emerita at Smith College.
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