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The Failure of Reform: A History of Higher Education in the United States

Creative Commons 'BY' version 4.0 license

The history of higher education is often described and understood to be one of evolution. The story generally goes that the long history of higher education persists along a more or less unbroken line of progress and development, finally culminating in the forms we have today. However, this understanding eliminates or softens the struggles and conflicts that gave rise to the various institutional forms that higher education takes on in a given period and elides the economic, social, and political issues that gave rise to particular forms of education. I tell a different story based on a survey of primary and secondary texts regarding the history of higher education in the United States. I specifically focus on the development and founding of Research Universities as an institution to conserve and protect the emerging professional class in the 19th century. My research shows that reform of existing institutions is generally futile without the prior founding of new institutions that force the existing ones to reform. All institutional forms are the products of class conflict as modes of production undergo transformation - so long as the existing forms generally meet social expectations, there is no need to for substantive reform. When these social expectations are not met, however, new forms must be sought. These social expectations are contested within and beyond existing institutions by students, faculty, staff, administration, and community voices. This combustible mix has created the institutions we have today and will create new ones in the future.

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