How American Higher Education Became the Envy of the World—Yet Remains Distrusted at Home

In a new book, former Tufts provost Sol Gittleman considers the history that led to today’s U.S. colleges and universities

For a sabbatical project in 2014, former Tufts provost Sol Gittleman, A85P, H10, who is the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor Emeritus, proposed writing “a historical critique of American higher education.” Nearly a decade later, his sixth book, An Accidental Triumph: The Improbable History of American Higher Education, is the outcome. In the book, which I helped edit, Gittleman draws on his seven-decade involvement in higher education, and, as always, he seeks to educate people far beyond classroom walls.  

Gittleman wrote An Accidental Triumph because he was annoyed that Americans “were so utterly ill-informed. Americans don’t remember anything. We don’t remember that we fought for democracy in World War II with a segregated army even as we were still lynching people. We don’t remember that eugenics was the primary way we taught biology,” he said. “This nonunderstanding of our history extends to higher education. I wanted to write for intelligent people who were puzzled by all the negativity surrounding American higher education. What are we? An educational disaster or the envy of the world?”

Book jacket of An Accidental Triumph by Sol Gittleman

American higher education “remained second-best at best in the first four decades of the 20th century,” argues former Tufts Provost Sol Gittleman, author of An Accidental Triumph.

Gittleman pored over hundreds of books and articles on the topic, but he was mainly informed by his own upbringing as a first-generation American and by his decades as a professor and longtime provost at Tufts, where he left lasting impressions on countless students, including me and Jeremy Wang-Iverson, A02. Like me, Wang-Iverson, who began working in book publishing shortly after graduating, has kept in touch with Gittleman; Vesto, the company Wang-Iverson founded in 2017, is the publisher of An Accidental Triumph.

I sat down with Gittleman to discuss his main takeaways about higher education. Here they are, in his own words. 

Anti-intellectualism runs deeply through America.

For all the success of U.S. colleges and universities, Americans view them—if they even think about them at all—as failing at everything, as a major problem in the managing of the country. Growing up in the late 1930s and early 1940s, all I ever knew about colleges was from Hollywood movies. The image of American colleges was how fun and unintellectual they were. Only football represented campus excellence. Nobody cared about books, nobody cared about learning, and our research was seen as modest at best. We gave the Europeans a good laugh. Even now, one of the more memorable movies about the American campus is Animal House.

American higher education grew from theocratic roots.

Look at these founding schools. Brown said if you say anything against Christianity, you’re out of here. Harvard’s earliest motto, in Latin, was “Truth for Christ and Church.” Up to the Civil War, America was peppered with faith-based colleges. We still have many religious schools, but over time, we saw compulsory chapel at most institutions go from every day, to twice a week, to first-year students only, to gone by the 1940s.

The Land-Grant Acts and the Gilded Age began the transformation.

Two 19th-century developments helped to reshape higher education in America, though they are little appreciated today. The Morrill Land Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 produced what would become the great public state university systems and historically Black colleges and universities. And for all the writing about the Gilded Age, rarely mentioned is how philanthropic industrialists with names such as Hopkins, Stanford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie wanted to create German-style research universities in America.

The stage was set for a new era, but American higher education remained second-best at best in the first four decades of the 20th century.

World War II—and the refugees it drove to our shores—changed everything.

No one could have imagined how quickly Adolf Hitler would destroy the German universities and the rest of European higher education. He began this in the 1930s, which was also when America opened its immigration doors just enough to let in a few nuclear physicists and a handful of future Nobel Prize winners; that’s how we got the atom bomb.

Refugees from Nazi Germany brought not just their knowledge and skills, but also the model of the German research university and the research degree it created in the 19th century: the Ph.D. Those refugees gave us the chance to get to the top and stay there.

Totally by accident, the GI Bill kept the change moving.

Congress had no idea what it created when it passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act—better known as the GI Bill—in 1944. The act provided benefits to returning veterans that included payment of tuition and living expenses while in college. It was sponsored by the American Legion, which didn’t want a repeat of what happened after World War I, when about 200,000 returning soldiers couldn’t get jobs. Experts thought that maybe a few hundred thousand veterans would enroll in college. But by 1950, two million had signed up.

Not that America was ready to accept everyone. Black GIs continued to face all kinds of hurdles and resistance. And after the war effort, women were told to go back to their kitchens.

Still, the GI Bill launched the greatest unplanned educational revolution in U.S. history. It was advanced by Sen. William Fulbright, who proposed using the sale of surplus war property to fund American college students to study abroad. His bill launched the Fulbright Program in 1946.

Bumps and all, it’s been the Golden Age for American higher education ever since.

It took a while—and the Soviet Union beating us to space with Sputnik in 1957—but massive government funding and federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health supercharged the growth and success of America’s research universities.

When the Nobel Prizes began in 1901, they seemed almost a wholly owned German subsidiary. By the second half of the 20th century, American or American-trained recipients dominated the Nobel and other international awards. They still do.

Americans still don’t trust higher education.  

The world understands this American preeminence, but at home, people don’t want to hear this. They see all these negative stories about inept administrators, admission scandals, enormous student debt, and gambling-fueled Division 1 athletics gone crazy. 

Americans in the last half-century have tended to blame many of the nation’s problems on our colleges, universities, and their faculty. I worry now about the level of contempt both government and Americans feel about higher education.

Higher education remains our accidental triumph.

We could still shoot ourselves in the foot, but I don’t see any other country that can create by accident or design what we’ve done. No other nation has the choice, variety, and sheer number of universities and colleges, private, public, faith based, two year, four year, nonprofit, for profit, tiny, and huge.

What we have with American higher education is not a system; it’s an anarchy. Administrations are generally incompetent, faculty mostly ungovernable. It’s a bit of a nut farm, but it’s who we are. No other nation can match the singular accomplishments of American higher education. American faculty still dominate worldwide research competitions. And it’s all happened by accident.

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