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An American Affidavit

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

83. William Rainey Harper: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archve.org

William Rainey Harper 

Three decades later at the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper, former 
Chautauqua wizard, began a revolution that would change the face of American 
university education. Harper imported the university system of Germany into the United 
States, lock, stock, and barrel. Undergraduate teaching was to be relegated to a form of 
Chautauqua show business, while research at the graduate level was where prestige 
academic careers would locate, just as Bacon's New Atlantis had predicted. Harper, 
following the blueprint suggested by Andrew Carnegie in his powerful "Gospel of 
Wealth" essays, said the United States should work toward a unified scheme of 
education, organized vertically from kindergarten through university, horizontally 
through voluntary association of colleges, all supplemented by university extension 
courses available to everyone. Harper wrote in 1902: 

The field of education is at the present time in an extremely disorganized condition. But 
the forces are already in existence [to change that]. Order will be secured and a great new 
system established, which may be designated "The American System." The important 
steps to be taken in working out such a system are coordination, specialization and 

Harper and his backers regarded education purely as a commodity. Thorstein Veblen 
describes Harper's revolution this way: 

The underlying business-like presumption accordingly appears to be that learning is a 
merchantable commodity, to be produced on a piece-rate plan, rated, bought and sold by 
standard units, measured, counted, and reduced to staple equivalence by impersonal, 
mechanical tests. 

Harper believed modern business enterprise represented the highest and best type of 
human productive activity. He believed business had discovered two cosmic principles — 
techniques implicit in the larger concept of survival of the fittest: consolidation and 
specialization. Whatever will not consolidate and specialize must perish, he believed. The 
conversion of American universities into a system characterized by institutional giantism 
and specialization was not finished in Harper's lifetime, but went far enough that in the 
judgment of the New York Sun, "Hell is open and the lid is off!" 

Harper's other main contribution to the corporatization of U.S. scholarly life was just as 
profound. He destroyed the lonely vocation of great teacher by trivializing its importance. 
Research alone, objectively weighed and measured, subject to the surveillance of one's 
colleagues would, after Harper, be the sine qua non of university teaching: 

Promotion of younger men in the departments will depend more largely upon the results 
of their work as investigators than upon the efficiency of their teaching.... In other words, 

it is proposed to make the work of investigation primary, the work of giving instruction 

Harper was the middleman who introduced the organization and ethics of business into 
the world of pedagogy. Harper-inspired university experience is now virtually the only 
ritual of passage into prosperous adulthood in the United States, just as the Carnegie 
Foundation and Rockefeller's General Education Board willed it to be. Few young men 
or women are strong enough to survive this passage with their humanity wholly intact. 

Death Dies 

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