Beyond the Cold War University: The Prewar Roots of Universitiesí Post-World War II Prominence in American Society

Thursday, January 2, 2014: 1:20 PM
Maryland Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park)
Ethan Schrum, University of Virginia
In general histories of the twentieth-century United States, universities often go missing between the GI Bill in the mid-1940s and the student revolts in the mid-1960s. If they do appear, they frequently are portrayed as adjuncts to the Cold War—for instance, as sites of renewed American attention to science in the wake of Sputnik. Indeed, much scholarship on the postwar university has dubbed the institution “the Cold War university.” By contrast, my paper argues that in order to understand more fully how the university became a central social institution during the twenty years after World War II, we must shift our attention from the Cold War to intellectual movements with roots in the Progressive Era and New Deal, especially the tradition of technocratic progressivism. These movements spawned academic fields such as business management, city planning, industrial relations, and public administration that dramatically increased in prominence during the postwar years. Theoretical and organizational developments in social science research powered this increased prominence, as did heightened demand for social knowledge from political elites, government organizations, and civil society groups that made the university a central instrument in their visions of social engineering. Drawing on archival records at several major universities, I show how the research university became an instrument for providing managerial and technical solutions to social problems. I thus argue that the “instrumental university” is a better heuristic for understanding the postwar research university and its social purpose. My paper suggests new directions for the historiography of the postwar years by showing how an approach to social change rooted in prewar technocratic progressivism and New Deal political culture flourished in universities. We must move beyond the Cold War to see the postwar university as a product of a longer “high modern” project to provide rational control of industrial society.