Field of Dreams: On Public Universities

Shortly before his death in in 2010, the historian Tony Judt recalled driving across the United States as a young man. Having come of age in the austerity of postwar Britain, Judt saw much to marvel over in 1970s America. As he traveled by Buick from Boston to a job at the University of California, Davis, which he described as being “halfway between San Francisco and nowhere,” he was amazed by amenities such as the portions in Texas eateries. There he and his wife made the mistake of ordering two large pizzas for two people. But on this and other trips throughout the States, what impressed him most wasn’t the standard stuff of European travelogues from the period. If Davis didn’t inspire Judt, the sight of a stone monument to public knowledge rising out of Midwestern farmland certainly did. “By far the best thing about America,” it moved him to write, “is its [public] universities”:

Not Harvard, Yale e tutti quanti: though marvelous, they are not distinctively American — their roots reach across the ocean to Oxford, Heidelberg, and beyond. Nowhere else in the world, however, can boast such public universities. You drive for miles across a godforsaken midwestern scrubscape, pockmarked by billboards, Motel 6s, and a military parade of food chains, when — like some pedagogical mirage dreamed up by nineteenth-century English gentlemen — there appears … a library! And not just any library: at Bloomington, the University of Indiana boasts a 7.8-million-volume collection in more than nine hundred languages, housed in a magnificent double-towered mausoleum of Indiana limestone.

For Judt, a public research university in the heartland perfectly evoked the United States’s unique experiment in what Christopher Lasch called “the democratization of intelligence.” Only Americans would build a research library next to a cornfield, because only Americans would design a single institution devoted to technical training, the advancement of knowledge, and liberal education.

Between 1870 and the eve of World War I, the American system of higher education expanded from just over 300 colleges and universities, and an enrollment of 52,000 students, to include over 1,690 institutions with a total enrollment of more than 1.4 million. The reformers spearheading this expansion worked with ideas and models from abroad. This, perhaps, is what Judt meant to remind us of by alluding to the 19th-century British gentlemen who would have found their pedagogical dreams realized in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But the man whose vision brought many of the universities that Judt celebrated into existence was the son of a blacksmith from Vermont. A self-made businessman without a college education, Justin Smith Morrill entered Congress in 1854 and was a founding member of the Republican Party. In 1862, he led the effort to pass the Morrill Land-Grant Act, the legislation that laid the foundations for public universities across the country.

Congress had long been debating whether it should fund a national university. George Washington, for one, had supported the idea. But coming up with a workable plan proved difficult, in part because those in favor of a national university couldn’t agree on whether it should provide a technical education or pursue advanced scholarship. The Morrill Act, however, was passed at a time when action seemed imperative and the empowerment of individual states was a pressing issue. In the midst of the United States’s bloodiest war, Republican senators voted for a federally sponsored, state-centered nation-building project. The Act apportioned states more than 17.4 million acres of land based proportionally on the size of each state’s congressional delegation. States were allowed to sell or rent these lands and use the funds to endow, support, or maintain, as the Act read, “at least one college whose primary purpose was to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanical arts.” Morrill led the legislative drive with the hope of giving people from circumstances resembling his own — rural and without a college degree — access to post-secondary education.

Morrill had other designs, too. He imagined an American higher education that would replace pure scholarship, which he derisively called “European,” with scholarship that had “practical value” and would do “the greatest good for the greatest number.” But the Act itself included a different sort of charge as well, which is ultimately what made its effects so unique. Although the legislation stressed technical and military education, it also stipulated, albeit in the vaguest of terms, that any college using its funds should “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.” Similarly, while the Act set forth rules for the appropriation of the funds it made available, it left open the question of how the institutions receiving support should be organized. The congressmen who drafted the Act gave no guidance as to how states should understand, much less institutionalize, the relationship between “agricultural and mechanical” learning and “liberal” education. They voted on a vision, not a plan.

Not surprisingly, states interpreted the Morrill Act’s mandate broadly. The Universities of California, Wyoming, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Illinois, as well as Cornell and MIT, were founded with Morrill funds. Columbia and Princeton used the funds to add scientific schools. Some of the land-grant institutions focused almost exclusively on technical education, whereas others, such as California and Wisconsin, established liberal arts colleges that would soon flourish and redirect the flow of influence in American higher education. As Clark Kerr put it in 1963, “Michigan became a German-style university and Harvard a land-grant type of institution, without the land.” Reflecting on the importance of the Morrill Act a century earlier, Andrew Dickson White, Cornell’s founding president, wrote, “In all the annals of Republics there is no more significant utterance of confidence in national destiny out from the midst of calamity.” White sought to use Morrill Act funds to fulfill Ezra Cornell’s dream of creating a university where “any man can study anything.” White himself had proposed to build a “place where the most highly prized instruction may be afforded to all — regardless of color or sex.”

It would of course take many years, more wars, hot and cold, and reforms related to those wars — General Education programs, the G. I. Bill, federal agencies issuing research grants — before American public universities reached the form and dimensions that so impressed Judt in 1975. Today, after decades of state disinvestment from public higher education, Judt’s image seems remote and White’s pioneering efforts toward combining access, excellence, and curricular breadth at a land-grant school seem so, too.

But White’s words can also resonate with renewed force as a call to arms. This is especially so among critics who are familiar with the improbable rise of public universities in the United States and who, in addition, believe that the United States’s social successes have long been bound up with its public institutions of higher education.


Christopher Newfield is one such critic. And in The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, his latest book about the crisis of public higher education, he invokes White, crediting him with seeking not only to make university study at the highest level accessible to traditionally excluded groups, but also to institutionalize the “principle of inclusion” in American higher education.

Newfield looks to the ideals of founders such as White to revitalize the notion that great public multiversities (to use Kerr’s term) benefit the whole nation. Amid much hand-wringing over the corporatization of the university and much chatter about the impending digital disruption of higher education, Newfield’s contribution stands out. He mounts a deeply informed and impassioned defense of the idea that our economic, cultural, and political progress depends to a large degree on quality higher education — or more specifically, on quality higher education that has a liberal arts component, that affords equal access, and that is guaranteed by the “public provision.”

A professor of English at UC Santa Barbara, Newfield devotes most of The Great Mistake to laying out the political and economic predicament of contemporary higher education in the United States. Indeed, the book is organized around what he calls the “decline cycle,” a process he documents by marshaling a large amount of compelling and disheartening evidence.

Newfield’s cycle begins with the shift toward thinking about higher education as a private rather than a public good. But his aim is not so much to analyze why states have withdrawn so much support from public higher education over the past 40 years, or why their citizens haven’t resisted this trend, as to explain how state disinvestment and its chief consequence — privatization — have affected public universities.

Newfield’s message is clear enough. Replacing public funding with private support cannot bring about affordable mass quality in public higher education. The tuition increases of the past 15 years are clearly unsustainable, and they undermine both access and learning, since they force many students to spend more time on their jobs and less on their classes. Nor has focusing on tuition as a source of revenue protected the quality of instruction, since admitting more students to cover existing costs only works if you keep costs down. As it happens, the hiring of tenured and tenure-track faculty at public research universities has lagged far behind growth in both student enrollments and the corporate-style administrative positions that seem so necessary in a climate of privatization. More than 70 percent of the courses at these institutions are now taught by instructors who aren’t tenured or tenure-track faculty. As recently as 20 years ago, the ratio of faculty to senior administrators at UC Berkeley was about 5:1. By 2015, it had become 1:1.

In a way, both private support for research and charitable giving actually cost universities money, because both entail leveraging public resources to further private interests. Research grant dollars are in effect seed money that covers only less than half of the total expense of the projects they fund. Much the same goes for federal grants, which give public universities far less money for overhead costs than they do private institutions, since public universities already receive money from state governments, albeit it not in the way they once did. Thus the units at public universities that boast of attracting the most money in industry and government grants are actually the most expensive units for their universities to maintain. And most charitable gifts are restricted and similarly seed-like: they pay for only a small percentage of the research centers that bears the donor’s names, and whose construction probably diverted resources away from more pressing educational needs. It is, after all, hard to say no to a multimillion-dollar gift, especially in tough times. Then of course there is the labor and expense involved in applying for grants and bringing in private gifts. Both endeavors get in the way of research and teaching — ostensibly the core mission of faculty — and necessitate significant overhead in the form of grant writing and fundraising specialists.

Newfield isn’t particularly hard on the wealthy corporations and people leveraging public universities for R&D and to burnish their brands. They are just doing what wealthy corporations and people do. Nor does he excoriate academic administrators for thinking that privatization is the answer to their financial problems. To be sure, Newfield calls out some public university administrators for reinforcing popular misperceptions about university budgets (e.g., that STEM disciplines subsidize the dreamier-seeming ones, such as English, when the reverse is the case), and others for having been less than forthright about the budgets over which they presided, particularly when it comes to the issue of how much financial aid students actually receive. But Newfield acknowledges that public university administrators often operate under difficult circumstances, where asking the state for reinvestment is treated as a “nonstarter” by their own boards of trustees. If they made mistakes, even great ones, their intentions were mostly good.


Where Newfield takes off the gloves is in going after those actors in his decline cycle whom he sees as the profiteers of crisis: certain outfits within the student loan industry and the hawkers of MOOC platforms. But the professoriate, too, gets its share of blame. According to Newfield, professors have failed to do their part. They could have pressured administrators to agitate for public reinvestment or fought for it themselves, yet they mostly haven’t. Perhaps the best line in the book comes from Jerry Brown, who once gave public higher education advocates strategic advice for breaking down his own resistance: make needs into rights and rights into lawsuits. Newfield seems to agree. He also claims that professors should have tried harder to communicate the importance of their research to the public, both in and beyond the terms of its market value. In addition, he faults the faculty for neglecting to make the case for accessible world-class higher education as a public good, one we do without at our peril.

Newfield himself stresses that the interpretive social sciences, arts, and humanities — the “SASH” fields, as he dubs them — are less costly and at least as crucial as their STEM counterparts in managing the great problems of the 21st century, pretty much all of which cry out for cultural knowledge and creativity. From this it follows that society simply cannot afford not to make a high-quality liberal education broadly accessible. How else will it ensure that the most talented problem solvers are equipped to engage with the most urgent problems? Another point of emphasis is that Americans with a BA or BS are healthier and more likely to participate in the political process than those without degrees. And quality public higher education that is affordable not only makes for greater political participation, but it also makes for shared prosperity, which many of us feel democracies need some measure of in order to be worthy of the name. High-quality, low-tuition public higher education, Newfield impresses upon his readers, has a usefulness that is no less vital for being irreducible to market value. No luxury, it is an essential public good.

Earlier reformers of American higher education, such as White and Kerr, claimed that it was in the national interest to make quality higher education accessible to a broad public. At a speech given at UC Berkeley, William Rainey Harper, the founding president of the University of Chicago, described universities as the “priests of democracy.” Today’s public university presidents, by contrast, tend to emphasize how their institutions advance private interests. Ohio State University, for example, recently featured on its website the work of an educational economist who has calculated the “return on investment” for a bachelor’s degree from a public institution. Such advertising diminishes the prospect of public reinvestment, because it reinforces the kind of thinking that allowed for disinvestment in the first place. Higher education is in the business of conferring credentials that give economic advantages to those who hold them. Why, then, should the public support individuals as they pursue their private interests? Why should I pay to equip other people’s children to compete more effectively against my own?

Newfield, who has some intriguing things to say about how demographic shifts have affected taxpayer attitudes toward public higher education, counters this logic by enumerating the public benefits just mentioned and also by citing the work of the economist Walter McMahon. McMahon has tried to estimate, in cash value, the “social benefits” of a BA or equivalent degree: $31,380 per year in 2007 dollars.

For Newfield, however, the greatest public good afforded by universities is deeply humanistic. In two previous books, Ivy and Industry (2003) and Unmaking the Public University (2008), Newfield offered extended accounts of the sort of self-development — the “mass Bildung,” as he has called it elsewhere — that he believes liberal public higher education should make happen. Both books also contain much institutional history. The first told the story of how in the United States big business and research universities “grew up together,” influencing each other in complex and often surprising ways. The second tried to show how anti-egalitarian forces undermined the systems of public higher education that had not only profited from, but also done so much to bring about, the United States’s postwar boom. But both of these books advanced a common ideal.

Drawing on such thinkers as John Dewey, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Robert Pirsig, Newfield embraced a “liberal humanism” that extolled the free self, experiential knowledge, robust agency, and autonomy. The end of university education, he maintained, was the development of individual agency. In these earlier books, Newfield went to great lengths to distinguish his more liberal and pluralist humanism from what he considered “weak” and exclusive humanisms, such as those of Irving Babbitt or Allan Bloom, which he saw as having impeded the university’s own higher self-development.

The Great Mistake is less philosophically inclined, less classically humanist than Ivy and Industry and Unmaking the Public University. It is longer on graphs and shorter on learned exegesis. But like the other works in Newfield’s university trilogy, The Great Mistakegrounds the case for public higher education on the premise that public universities can provide affordable mass Bildung. They can offer a liberal, humanistic education that develops the self toward a higher freedom and fulfillment that, in turn, benefits society in multiple ways. The United States, he concludes, must restore this vision and its “core assumption” that “university humanities serve at least three core missions — self-development, democratic citizenship, and sustainable economic development.”


Toward the end of The Great Mistake, Newfield returns to the accomplishments of founders like White and Kerr. He does so in framing his most fundamental aim. “In an earlier book of mine, Ivy and Industry,” he writes, “I showed that a consensus version of university humanism has long consisted of “five interwoven concepts: the free self, experiential knowledge, self-development, autonomous agency, and enjoyment.” University philosophers and administrators did not simply espouse these ideals, but institutionalized them.

As he concludes The Great Mistake, Newfield also stresses that the humanities need to adapt to new circumstances; academic humanists would do well, he claims, to engage more concertedly with ongoing social problems. Yet to a great extent, the way forward for public higher education turns out, in his account, to be the way back. It is a process of recovery. That Newfield terms the counterpart to his decline cycle the “recovery cycle,” whereby public universities regain public funding and educate students more effectively, is thus doubly apt.

Recovery projects of this sort typically engage in an elegiac prettifying of the past. But Newfield deftly avoids that trap, even if some passages seem to suggest otherwise. He is clear-eyed in his depictions of American academia since the late 19th century. He recognizes that, to paraphrase Kerr, American research universities are in the world but not quite of the world, that they have always struggled to balance conflicting design objectives: utility with free inquiry, social engagement with autonomy, professional training with liberal education, etc.

But in seeking to recover an older concept of Bildung for the sake of mass education, Newfield at times puts aside his discerning lens. As a result, his project exhibits a lack of conceptual clarity at its core — at precisely that place where the scrubscape meets the research library.

For Newfield, democracy and Bildung are entirely compatible, with the latter powerfully reinforcing the former. But what makes Judt’s image of a research library amid the scrubscape so inspiring is just how jarring the juxtaposition is. There are deep and persistent tensions between Bildung and democracy, and progressive defenders of liberal education should face them honestly, rather than dismiss them as the hobbyhorses of reactionaries and elitists. The very tradition of progressive humanism that Newfield sees himself connecting with abounds, when it comes to the link between Bildung and democracy, with notable complications and double-valences. Newfield’s own early work on Emerson’s “submissive individualism” — The Emerson Effect (1995) — does a fine job of bringing some of them to light.

The Great Mistake is, to be sure, a different sort of book, meant for a broader audience — it begins with an extended hypothetical scenario that at once evokes and addresses the concerns of middle-class parents of college-age children. And as Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine showed decades ago in From Humanism to the Humanities (1986), overpromising is itself part of the humanist tradition. Since the Renaissance, humanists have routinely made claims about the benefits of humanist education that seldom played out in the classroom. But certainly the degree of overpromising matters.

The very pressures on humanist education that Newfield discusses have been pushing this overpromising toward self-undermining extremes. Worried not simply about irrelevance or marginalization, but rather about budgetary oblivion, progressive defenders of the humanities — a group we consider ourselves part of — have been eager to avoid implying that there is any tension between the humanities’ promise of self-development and democratic values. The result can be, as it sometimes is in The Great Mistake, too much telling and too little showing, and a different — but also central — promise of the humanities goes unfulfilled: that of engaging tradition in meaningful conversation.

What did Humboldt and his fellow German neo-humanists have in mind when they made Bildung a basic aim of university study? For Humboldt, despite what bad translations have suggested, Bildung was never simply self-development. It always implied a Bild, an image beyond the self to which a person submitted himself. No person could simply form himself. Such a process required authoritative texts, images, models, traditions, and practices in terms of which one was formed. It presupposed models — Vorbilder — that could be trusted and were worthy of critical engagement. The process of formation was both active and passive. Liberation required subordination and, to use one of Humboldt’s key terms, “restriction.”

The institutionalization of Bildung at German universities was not, originally at least, a democratic project, though it certainly drew on democratic thinking about the self. Writing at the beginning of the 19th century, Humboldt did stress that anyone could, theoretically, unfold himself to his “full humanity” through humanistic education. But it was clear to him and his contemporaries that most people — that is, most young men — would have neither the opportunity nor the mettle to succeed. Nor could the Bildung-fostering university, as Humboldt imagined it, accommodate masses of students.

The humanistic education envisioned by Humboldt — and by centuries of humanistic learning — was based on intimate practices of intellectual and moral apprenticeship. In the German tradition, these practices were adopted and adapted in the necessarily exclusive and intimate setting of the research seminar. A higher freedom — “the autonomous individual or personality,” as he put it — was certainly the goal. But the way to get there for Humboldt, a master at integrating opposing programs (for example, the social utility and the autonomy of the research university), was by cultivating virtues that don’t accord so easily with democratic values. In this tradition, the ideal scholar was both critical and in awe of intellectual traditions that preceded him.

Although there are exceptions to the trend — Danielle Allen’s brilliant essay Equality and Education (2016) comes to mind — today’s humanists looking to stress how their teaching advances the cause of democracy seldom mention both sides of the Humboldtian equation. These authors — for example, Martha Nussbaum in Not for Profit (2010) — argue that they offer training in critical thinking, which facilitates the independent-mindedness a democracy needs in its citizenry. Often this training is framed as sufficing to represent, as well, the opportunity for self-transformation that a democracy should do its best to make widely available. But while Humboldt, too, wanted the university to produce independent minds, he thought that Bildung was not just a sharpening and disciplining of one’s unique mental powers. Indeed, the character of the person who would ultimately emerge from the process was never certain. Bildung, as Hegel wrote, was an “ordeal.” It demanded supreme commitment and meant existential risk, both for the person undergoing it and the culture responsible for it. There was, for Hegel and Humboldt alike, a necessary duration to the formation of the self. Bildung could — should — have its joyful moments, but it could not be had without intense struggle and certainly not on the quick.


In the centuries since Humboldt, a diverse group of thinkers has echoed these views. In the winter of 1872–’73, Friedrich Nietzsche, then a young classics professor at the University of Basel, delivered a scathing rebuke to Prussia’s attempts to democratize Humboldt’s humanist education system. Mass Bildung was an oxymoron, according to Nietzsche. In The Future of Our Educational Institutions (1887), he warned that Prussia’s attempts to democratize its institutions of higher learning through more liberal admission standards and expanded curricula would negatively affect the quality of the education it provided. Democratizing the system of education had already reinforced a climate, he complained, in which students were encouraged prematurely to hold forth as critics of the most formidable classical material. The process would also overextend limited resources, financial and otherwise, and reduce education to the production of a particular type of person. It would routinize Bildung and sacrifice great human potential in order serve the immediate interests of a state in need of highly skilled but predictable citizens.

Shortly after World War II and her emigration to the United States, the German philosopher Hannah Arendt, as we have discussed in an article in The Hedgehog Review, argued something similar in her 1958 essay “The Crisis in Education.” “Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child,” she wrote, “education must be conservative.” Rather than “instructing in the art of living,” the misguided method of her American colleagues, teachers of the humanities should lead young minds to a formative awareness of their place in the “old world” in which they find themselves, a journey requiring rigorous learning about that world. An education, especially in the modern world, that forgoes “either authority or tradition” does its students a grave disservice.

Lionel Trilling, too, understood that the German ideal of Bildung entailed “strict sanctions and required submission.” It signified fashioning, forming, and cultivating but also being fashioned, formed, and cultivated. Writing in the state of liberal education in the 1970s, Trilling had come to think that what stood in the way of Bildung in the United States — and he used the German term — was not only a native attachment to autonomy but also an unwillingness to commit to just one self and its development. Americans, he claimed, wanted to have multiple selves and the attendant feelings of possibility.

For Newfield, Bildung of the transformative kind seems to happen merely through the teaching of critical analytic skills — where the practical and the liberal come close to each other — and the process neatly aligns with democratic ideals of autonomy, self-expression, and individual creativity. But if Humboldt, Nietzsche, and Arendt are right, there are other virtues necessary for Bildung: humility and a willingness to be formed by something that exceeds the self. In an American culture that celebrates individualism, self-reliance, and autonomy, these virtues can seem not just antiquated but authoritarian as well. Yet any humanistic case for the compatibility of Bildung and democracy should recognize them as counterpoints long thought to be necessary parts of the process.

The case for mass Bildung would also profit from an account of how mass Bildung might look concretely, in a contemporary institutional setting. Newfield presupposes that in the days of better public funding for higher education and of an expanding professional class, public universities offered mass Bildung, from which he infers that, with public reinvestment, they could offer it again. In the end, he says little about the specific institutional circumstances in which mass Bildung occurred. He tells us what mass Bildung might do, but not where exactly and how exactly the process worked.

The vague imperatives of the Morrill Act for universities to pursue practical and liberal ends in higher education suggest that utility and liberal ends — or economic productivity and moral formation — can be melded in a single institution. Under the leadership of figures such as White at Cornell, American research universities even held out the promise that these ends could reinforce each other. But this has always been a struggle. White accomplished a great deal in Ithaca, but Cornell eventually became an extremely selective and expensive institution. The phenomenon of the public university president who seems contemptuous of liberal education is nothing new and in fact has loomed large. Andrew Draper, who oversaw the expansion of the University of Illinois at the turn of the 20th century despite never attending college, was militantly devoted to the cause of vocational higher education. His spirit has lived on in the disdain with which professional colleges at land-grant universities often treat General Education programs, the beleaguered — and in many cases, shrinking — systems of mandatory liberal arts courses that get in the way of more rapid vocational training.

White and Draper further complicated the already tenuous relationship between a practical and liberal education in their polemics against Christianity and what they claimed was its “war” on science. In A History of the Warfare of Science with Theologyin Christendom, first published in 1896 and dedicated to Ezra Cornell, White wrote that their efforts to establish an institution for “advanced instruction and research, in which science, pure and applied, should have an equal place with literature,” had been stymied not only by pious competitors but also by the grand historical antagonism between “theology and science” or the “interference of science in the supposed interest of religion.” Late 19th-century participants on both sides of the science-versus-religion conflict, perhaps unwittingly, institutionalized their commitments. Modern science, theoretical and practical, came to be associated with the university, especially the research university, whereas religion and its more secular forms, character formation or development, came to be associated with the college. By 1900, the dual imperative of the Morrill Act had been sundered into two distinct institutional mandates.

Having taken his readers through the wreckage caused by privatization, Newfield holds out the hope that some of the crises besetting the world today might lead to the better coordination of these two mandates. Technological solutions often fail to solve problems not because of faulty science, but rather because scientists lack the humanistic knowledge needed to integrate them effectively into foreign cultures. What if, in the face of apocalyptic threats like climatological disasters and super-viruses, scientists and humanists worked together in new ways, ways that made the public value of humanistic knowledge compellingly palpable? The rise of innovative programs in medical and environmental humanities and the involvement of leading scientists in such programs suggest that there is reason to be (darkly) hopeful. Progress for research universities has tended to begin, to speak with White, “in the midst of calamity,” starting with the German research university model, which took shape during — and in response to — Napoleon’s victories over the German states. But it is hard to see how realigning practical and liberal education will help public universities meet the challenge of providing mass Bildung. Even with increased public funding, this challenge will remain as difficult, as intractable, and as inspiring as the contrast between the cornfield and the tower of learning.

[This article first appeared as “Field of Dreams: Public Higher Education in the United States” in the Los Angeles Review of Books and was written with Paul Reitter.]

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