Higher education began as a way to train privileged men to be religious, military, intellectual or civic leaders. But as access to higher education has broadened, and jobs become more specialized, colleges have had to provide a broader spectrum of academic offerings.
We see the career emphasis in the earliest known description of a curriculum, “Examination Text A” from the Akkadian civilization (2300-2150 BCE). It records a crabby teacher scolding an aspiring scribe who’s just flunked a quiz on languages, technical terminology, math, musical technique and political systems, writes Christopher Lucas in American Higher Education: A History.
Other ancient societies also wanted their budding leaders to have a well-rounded education. In China’s Eastern Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 BCE), aristocrats prepared for leadership by studying religious ritual, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy and math, according to the Springer Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory. And in ancient Greece and Rome, elite young men prepared for civic and religious leadership through the trivium of grammar, rhetoric and logic plus the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. (Fun fact: The word “academics” comes from the location of Plato’s school of philosophy.)
You can draw a straight line from there to U.S. higher education through the Middle Ages, when European universities taught the “artes liberales” – the humanistic subjects taught in the original Greek academies. The Catholic church ran Europe’s first two universities, in Paris and Bologna, to train priests, with courses taught in Latin. The world’s first English-language university, Oxford University, began offering classes around 1100 C.E. in liberal arts, law, theology and medicine, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
In 1636, the general court of Massachusetts authorized funding for what became Harvard University, initially to prepare white, mostly wealthy, men for careers as Protestant clergy, according to the New World Encyclopedia. As students demanded more career and academic options, American colleges soon expanded their offerings – to train lawyers, teachers, scientists, doctors and other professionals, plus programs to simply develop well-rounded intellects: history, art, literature and music.
Starting in the Civil War, colleges also evolved their offerings to serve a more diverse student body that included African Americans, women, engineers and farmers. The Morrill Act of 1862 granted land to create new public universities to “teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanical arts as well as classical studies, so members of the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education,” according to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. An 1890 addendum to the law required that segregated states fund land-grant colleges for Black students.
These new, more practical colleges sparked debates over the purpose of higher education, and controversies over what courses of study colleges should offer. The Rev. John A. Anderson, himself educated in the liberal arts and theology, eliminated classical subjects when he ran Kansas State in the early 1870s, pledging to “fit men and women for the ordinary pursuits of life,” according to Virginia Railsback Gunn. He was proud to say the curriculum “contains no Latin or Greek rubbish, no useless ‘abstract’ mathematics, and no fancy ‘ologies’ or ‘osophies,’” just applied training in agricultural, veterinary science, horticulture, telegraphy, carpentry, home economics, printing and other trades.” He was happy to wage “educational war” against effete Easterners, he said.
Booker T. Washington, alumnus of Hampton University and founder of Tuskegee University, had a similar mindset. “The masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands,” he declared in a famous 1895 address. “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”
However, a call for agriculture education had a very different overtone when it was for Black students just one generation past slavery. And Washington embedded his case for vocational training in a promise to his white audience that African Americans would stay politically quiet and physically segregated if whites gave them resources and economic independence.
That made W.E.B. Du Bois furious. He argued that Black colleges should offer the same liberal arts courses that were offered to the white elite: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not,” he wrote in 1903.
Similarly, some women’s college leaders also argued offering vocational coursework amounted to dumbing-down the curriculum, and that they would not accept second-class status. Bryn Mawr refused to offer home economics or a teaching certificate.
Nonetheless, the democratization of higher education progressed glacially. As of 1940, only 6% of men and 4% of women held a bachelor’s degree, and the average adult had completed just 8.6 years of school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
But in the second half of the 20th century, higher education finally became a pursuit of the masses thanks to the G.I. Bill, the civil rights movement and the push for two-year community colleges, among other developments.
One key turning point in the evolution of U.S. academics was 1968. The trustees of what was then called San Francisco State College fired a popular English instructor who was active in the Black Panther Party and publicly called the Vietnam War racist, according to KQED. The Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front started what became the longest college student strike in U.S. history. Because students of color made up just 4% of SF State’s student body, but 70% of the city’s public school system, among the strikers’ demands were the creation of new ethnic studies programs and the admission of every applicant of color. Many white students and professors supported the strike.
“In every aspect from lectures to literature, the educational facilities do not contain the information necessary to relate any facet of minority peoples’ history and/or culture,” the Third World Liberation Front wrote. “Such an institutionalized condition of negligence and ignorance by the state’s educational systems is clearly an integral part of the racism and hatred this country has perpetuated upon nonwhite peoples.”
The college administration initially brought in riot police who participated in violent clashes and beat up protestors on several occasions. But in March 1969, the administration ended the strike by agreeing to most of the strikers’ demands, including the creation of Black and ethnic studies departments, according to KQED.
The struggle to establish women’s studies was less bloody but equally political. San Diego State and Cornell offered the first women’s studies courses in 1970. At Cornell, the course was housed in the home economics college, where three quarters of the university’s women faculty worked.
Today, there is a very broad array of academic offerings at the nation’s nearly 4,000 degree-granting institutions of higher education. Some colleges still emphasize the traditional “Western Civ.” approach. St. John’s College, for example, still bases its curriculum on western “Great Books,” and students have no majors.
But generally, the trend starting in the mid-2010s has been toward more career-oriented academic programs. Some politicians have tried to cut funding for what they see as impractical academic departments. Some small private liberal arts colleges have been forced to close, and other schools have eliminated humanities programs because of a lack of students willing to pay high tuition for courses that don’t immediately lead to high-paying jobs. On average, students were voting with their feet for programs that promise to land them good jobs. Since 2008-09, business has been overwhelmingly the most popular bachelor’s degree subject, followed by health professions, NCES reports.
Even so, the liberal arts remain popular with millions of students. Four out of 10 associate degrees earned in 2018-19 were in liberal arts and sciences, general studies or humanities. What’s more, proponents of the liberal arts have started to publicize research questioning the idea that employers prefer those who chose career study programs. One study found that over the very long term – such as a 40-year arc of a career – liberal arts majors tend to out earn others.
Maybe that Akkadian scribe should rethink his options.