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An American Affidavit

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

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

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  association. 

    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  secondary.  

     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. 

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