Academia Books History Science

Review of “The Great American University,” by Jonathan R. Cole

The Great American University is a book about the origins of the American research university system. The book is written for those with interest in the direction and future of research universities, and those who are curious how they differ from ‘regular’ colleges and universities.

The American research university emerged in the late 19th century, and was inspired by the experience of American students who studied in Europe as well as American philanthropists and political leaders with affection for British civilization. The returning students had seen the success of the German research universities, and the manner in which a Professor working with graduate students could lead to streams of new research. American leaders, aspiring to be more like the British leaders of the anglosphere, admired the distributed system of autonomous colleges and semi-autonomous departments that characterized Oxford and Cambridge. The combination of German tactics and British strategy proved successful, and the rise of the American research university began.

Much is made of the collapse of German universities as a result of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. While Cole acknowledges the brain drain duringg the 1930s and 1940s, Cole argues that the drain began the war and has continued since. While the collapse of the German research university was accelerated by the Nazis, in Cole’s opinion it was largely a result of the rise of America combined with the rise of socialist/anticompetitive politics in German post-1945 that sickened, then killed, the German system.

Following the Second World War science boom, the federal government accelerated the rise of the American research universities. From the Second World War to the Vietnam War, physics was a favorite area for funding. From this we received many new physical inventions, such as a transistor. After the Vietnam War, medicine is a favorite area for funding. Now we have great medical breakthroughs.

Professors at both research universities and “regular” universities have the familiar mix of teaching responsibilities, research universities, and community service. At a regular university the primary focus is to educate a new generation of workers and local business leaders. At a research university, on the other hand, the purpose of these three activities is the training and mentorship of a new generation of active researchers. (In the modern economy, however, a good argument can be made that some forms of research make for very good jobs and industries.)

Some of the book is spent on enemies of the research university system. Cole accurately describes creationists, some social conservatives, speech and “hate” codes, and political apparatchiks as enemies of the research university. Some readers might find the glowing references to Barack Obama to be annoying, but anyone who has read The Post-American World (by Fareed Zakaria) or Great Powers (by Thomas Barnett) will not be shocked.

I enjoyed The Great American University, and recommend it to anyone curious about American higher education.

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