Bringing the University Back In: Universities in Twentieth-Century U.S. Social and Political History

AHA Session 8
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Maryland Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park)
Andrew Jewett, Harvard University
Andrew Jewett, Harvard University

Session Abstract

Much of the historical literature on twentieth-century universities, which began to appear in the 1980s, has not fully engaged the mainstream of U.S history as practiced in history departments. At the same time, general histories of the twentieth-century U.S. have given little attention to the university. In the past ten years, a couple of scholars have suggested a new way forward. Margaret O’Mara’s Cities of Knowledge (2005) noted the centrality of universities to post-World War II urban policy history, while Christopher Loss’s Between Citizens and the State (2011) revealed universities’ critical importance for twentieth-century American political development. More recently, O’Mara has argued in a seminar talk that we must bring universities back into our historical narrative in order to understand late twentieth-century policy history. This panel contends that bringing the university back in is a necessary approach for the entirety of twentieth-century U.S. history. In attempting to support this contention, the panel treats topics such as capitalism, citizenship, elites, expertise, gender, race, and the state. The three papers together comprehend the first three quarters of the century, and the likely audience is anyone interested in the twentieth-century U.S.

Our panel begins at the turn of the twentieth century with Andrea Turpin’s paper on the gendered moral formation of university students in the Progressive Era and its consequences for gendered notions of social service. Drawing on the papers of administrators and student groups at the University of California and the University of Michigan, Turpin sheds new light on the shape of social reform in this era.

Ethan Schrum’s paper moves from the 1910s to the 1960s by arguing that Progressive Era ideas shaped the American university’s social purpose after World War II as political and civil society leaders and groups increased their demands for social knowledge from academic fields rooted early in the century: business management, city planning, industrial relations, and public administration. By unmooring the postwar university from the Cold War, we can see it as part of a longer technocratic progressive project of social control.

Stefan Bradley’s paper picks up the story of universities and American society in the post-World War II years. By examining the activism of black students at three Ivy League institutions not located in major cities—Brown, Dartmouth, and Princeton—his paper widens the conception of the space that the Black Freedom Movement occupied, moving beyond the South and major urban areas. The efforts of black students in the Ivy League suggest a wider scope marked by the cultural significance of these institutions.

Each of these papers thus examines the relations between universities and American society from a different angle. Turpin and Bradley both focus on students, but Turpin looks at how universities formed students in ways that shaped the broader society while Bradley shows how students changed universities in a manner that exerted wider social impact. By contrast, Schrum focuses on research and how elites outside the university increasingly sought to mobilize academic knowledge for their own visions of social control.

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