Democratizing College

On May 14, 1909, Science magazine published a piece by a Stanford mechanical engineer named Guido Hugo Marx with some interesting numbers. In 1870, Germany had one person per two thousand enrolled in one of its institutions of higher education, but by 1907, it was one per mil (.001). Comparatively, the US had one college student per seven hundred inhabitants in 1885, and one in every four hundred in 1905.

The Cornell educated Marx will later become a force of nature as a cofounder of the American Association of University Professors and through his activities with the American Civil Liberties Union. Doubt was in large supply about the value of higher education and its rapid expansion at the time, especially research universities (Hopkins 1876, Stanford 1885, Chicago 1890) that followed the German model of research institutions. Defending higher education at the time would celebrate this trend of making higher education available to more people. Marx obviously was happy to report this 'democratizing' more or less of human knowledge.

A century later, Americans attended college at a rate closer to one in four than one in four hundred. By then, the words 'college' and 'university' were struggling to mean anything in particular. And there is a global side to this, although this is a discussion for another day. Aggregating some available estimates, Richard DeMillo hazards the number 50,000 for colleges and universities in the world today, which colleges and universities enroll about a billion people (Revolution in Higher Education, MIT Press, 2015, p. 2). This number will include, for example, institutions like Hamburger University (a MacDonald training facility outside Chicago (p. 285)). Not clear to me why an individual's worth is commensurate with their having received an education in a college, or failing that, something that is not (what is traditionally understood to be) college but is called college anyway.

In the more traditional type of colleges, selectivity rates (in the selective schools) are moving toward lower percentages. That is to say, because so many apply, even when a larger number of people get in, a lower ratio of admission in selective schools obtains. Should we go on? Realize, before you say yes, if you are tempted to say yes, that this would likely mean that colleges will become institutions where some students learn in college what they should have learned in middle and high school. They will become 'finishing' schools in the bizarre sense of 'schools to finish up what junior high and high schoolers who did not do well could not finish.' Another consequence is the comfort with the idea that college must simply obey the sentiments of its society and reflect its so-called acceptable or broadly agreed upon values.

The university grew to be an institution that neither expects to function as a check on its society--a leader that demands obedience--nor a mere cog-wheel in the social machine. This is a good condition that demands no disturbance. To alleviate a reasonable suspicion in the reader's mind, I have no sympathy for academic elitism or patrician orientations in the academy. I remain, in fact, afraid of what I call academic mysticism, the production of rhetoric and texts that resist analysis and employment in any useful endeavor. I do not think, however, that it will be easy for the public to engage in the discussion on academic mysticism, because they are neither exposed to it nor in a position to relate to it in any way. It is the responsibility of academics themselves to work to weaken this phenomenon and, if possible, eliminate it gradually.

Higher education is not supposed to cater to everybody, because it is, frankly, not that useful for everybody. In the context of his Science magazine piece, Marx spoke of the democratization of higher education. A slightly different sense of democratizing college today can only be treated by responsible people with caution. To be sure again, Guido Marx's time included signs of the potential influence of both government and private philanthropists on the agendas of research and pedagogy. In other words, this is not a new problem. I worry, though, that higher education will stand for nothing in particular if we keep insisting that it is meant to be a mere replica of its society.