New Dreams

Students on the campus, Ann Arbor, Mich.

In the late 19th century, the number of American colleges and universities exploded. Between 1870 and 1930 the number of colleges and universities grew from 582 to 13221.This was driven by changes in American approaches to scholarship, work, and freedom. In terms of scholarship, sociologist David Labaree describes the evolution of the American university system as transitions in purpose2. Since its founding, the nation had always had colleges and universities. These institutions of higher education, though, focused on teaching the classics and ancient languages3. According to Labaree, these schools met a populist end; they increased property values and brought more people into the church4. Excluded from these schools though were poor males by virtue of their property - or lack thereof -, women by virtue of their sex, and African Americans by virtue of their melanin5. Following the Civil War, higher education transformed itself by meeting the demands of a new professional class of workers and educating groups who had been previously excluded from higher education.


The new professional was a symptom of the Civil War. The war necessitated the massive growth of the federal bureaucracy and a team of trained clerks to help manage it. The professionalization of work and management led to the expansion of efficiency and training in other fields, creating a growing demand for qualified workers. These jobs were labeled “white collar” and created a division between the toiling masses and the clean office working professionals. Advances in scientific knowledge and the growing pursuit of research drove the pursuit of new knowledge in other fields. “Practical” knowledge became popularized and formed the basis of the land grant universities, schools which would specialize in the dissemination of knowledge in technical and agricultural sciences. These would be used to further improve the quality and expertise of the economy. Research institutions also developed during this period to drive the continuation of research in the economy and build the practical knowledge base. 


Lucy Stone became the first woman in the United States to earn a college degree6. In an 1856 address to the Seventh National Women’s Rights Convention, she expressed the rising demands of women and feminists for the ability to go off to college with the boys. Women began entering higher education in the same post-war period7. The seven sisters, the women’s only compliment to the male exclusive ivy league, were all founded in the period during and following the Civil War. Wellesley college was founded in 1875, Smith in 1871, and Vassar in 1861. According to historian Barbara Miller Solomon in her book In the Company of Educated Women, three critical events between the Civil War and WWI aside women’s demands for equal opportunities to education allowed women to go to college. These were: 1) the massive expansion and success of public education, 2) the immediate effects of the war itself, and 3) the general expansion of higher education during the era8. In 1870, out of 582 institutions of higher learning only 12% of those educating only women and 29% were coeducational9. By 1910, there were over 1000 colleges and universities in the United States with 15% especially dedicated to women and 58% coeducational10. The pursuit of knowledge meant greater equality and freedom of opportunity for those who were expected to become primarily wives and mothers.


Following the Civil War, the newly freed slaves were quick to establish schools for themselves and remove the owner imposed ignorance of slavery from their communities. This led to the development of not only a system of public education, but the explosion of institutions of higher learning for African Americans particularly in the South known today as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). At first, the existence of these institutions was rejected by Whites who viewed it as a threat to white supremacy11. Northern missionaries and white allies overrode their opposition and several colleges were established12. Some of these colleges ingrained the traditions of liberal arts colleges while others specialized in practical educations13. While the heads of some universities held misgivings of the educational potential of African Americans, HBCUs came to be the largest contributor to the growth of the Black middle class who in many ways emulated the same White protestant virtues of the Northeast14. Achievement of middle class status and promotion of the politics of respectability would become a part of the way African Americans would continue to fight segregation throughout the rest of the 19th and early 20th centuries15.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the company of educated women: A history of women and higher education in America. Yale University Press, 1985. page 44

  2. Labaree, David F. "2013 Dewey Lecture:  College – What is it good for??." Education and Culture 30, no. 1 (2014): page 5

  3.  Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the company of educated women: A history of women and higher education in America. Yale University Press, 1985. page 2

  4. Labaree, David F. "2013 Dewey Lecture:  College – What is it good for??." Education and Culture 30, no. 1 (2014): page 5
  5. Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the company of educated women: A history of women and higher education in America. Yale University Press, 1985. page 2
  6. Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the company of educated women: A history of women and higher education in America. Yale University Press, 1985. page 43
  7. Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the company of educated women: A history of women and higher education in America. Yale University Press, 1985. page 43
  8. Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the company of educated women: A history of women and higher education in America. Yale University Press, 1985. page 43-44
  9. Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the company of educated women: A history of women and higher education in America. Yale University Press, 1985. page 44
  10. Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the company of educated women: A history of women and higher education in America. Yale University Press, 1985. page 44
  11. Allen, Walter Recharde, and Joseph O. Jewell. 2002. A backward glance forward: Past, present and future perspectives on historically black colleges and universities. The Review of Higher Education 25 (3): page 242
  12. Allen, Walter Recharde, and Joseph O. Jewell. 2002. A backward glance forward: Past, present and future perspectives on historically black colleges and universities. The Review of Higher Education 25 (3): page 243
  13. Allen, Walter Recharde, and Joseph O. Jewell. 2002. A backward glance forward: Past, present and future perspectives on historically black colleges and universities. The Review of Higher Education 25 (3): page 244
  14. Allen, Walter Recharde, and Joseph O. Jewell. 2002. A backward glance forward: Past, present and future perspectives on historically black colleges and universities. The Review of Higher Education 25 (3): page 244
  15. Kelley, Blair Murphy. Right to ride: Streetcar boycotts and African American citizenship in the era of Plessy v. Ferguson. Univ of North Carolina Press, 2010. page 123-124