Frank Donoghue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (Fordham UP, 2008): 3-7


Perhaps not surprisingly, the nature of their antagonism has changed very little over the last one hundred years. We might expect the disagreements to focus on money and assume that early twentieth-century capitalists complained that universities are unprofitable. They did, but these complaints do not account for the intensity, bordering on outrage, of their critiques. Instead, America's early twentieth-century capitalists were motivated by an ethically based anti-intellectualism that transcended interest in the financial bottom line. Their distrust of the ideal of intellectual inquiry for its own sake led them to insist that if universities were to be preserved at all, they must operate on a different set of principles from those governing the liberal arts. An important task of this and subsequent chapters will be to figure out exactly what aspects of business thinking are at odds with academia, to move beyond the notion of an undifferentiated corporate ideology. In doing so, I hope to move toward a better understanding of the mechanics of the corporate university, an institution that has been with us since for generations.


I begin at a dynamic and critical point, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. During that period, both universities and the nation's economy grew at an unprecedented rate. Driven by booming and largely unregulated industrial growth, the total national wealth of the United States nearly doubled-- from $87.9 billion to $165.4 billion from 1900 to 1910, and nearly doubled again, to 335.4 billion by 1920. No subsequent increases have ever approached these rates. Higher education exploded in growth as well. The percentage of the country's population of 18- to 24- year-olds attending college rose from 2.3 percent in 1900 to 7.2 percent in 1930. Not until the post- Second World War era was there a comparable surge in enrollment. The number of America's universities grew vigorously (increasing from 977 institutions in 1900 to l,409 in 1930); the number of faculty increased even more, from 23,868 in 1900 to 82,386 in 1930.  During these decades, then, although no one acknowledged it in just these terms, both attackers and defenders of universities spoke from a position of strength that is reflected in energetic polemics.


During this era of intense rivalry, prominent industrialists spoke out against America's universities. Andrew Carnegie, the meagerly educated, self-made multimillionaire, was perhaps the earliest and certainly one of the sharpest critics of traditional liberal arts education and curricula that foreground the humanities. He had the following to say in an 1891 commencement address at the Pierce College of Business and Shorthand of Philadelphia:


          In the storms of life are they [traditional graduates] to be strengthened and sustained and held to their post and to the performance of duty

          by drawing upon Hebrew or Greek barbarians as models .. . ? Is Shakespeare or Homer to be the reservoir from which they draw? . .. I rejoice

          therefore, to know that your time has not been wasted upon dead languages, but has been fully occupied in obtaining a knowledge of shorthand

          and typewriting ... and that you are fully equipped to sail upon the element upon which you must live your lives and earn your living.


After this flurry of mixed metaphors, Carnegie concludes that "college education as it exists today seems almost fatal" in the business domain, and he starkly contrasts such traditionally educated students, "adapted for life on another planet," to "the future captain of industry . . . hotly engaged in the school of experience, obtaining the very knowledge required for his future triumphs." He lauds the relatively new practice of populating university boards of trustees with businessmen, noting what he perceives to be the intransigence of academics, "professors and principals [college presidents] who are bound in their set ways and have a class feeling about them which makes it impossible to make reforms." Though he allows that graduates of polytechnic and scientific schools have an advantage over traditional apprentices in that they are likely to be "openminded and without prejudice," he uses that exception to justify his conviction that the only worthwhile education is that which has "bearing on a man's career if he is to make his way to fortune." As a philanthropist, Carnegie was true to his word. He founded the technical school that bears his name, and the terms of the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland (his native country) provide for money for "English Literature and Modern Languages, and such other subjects cognate to a technical or commercial education" (emphasis mine).


The generation following Carnegie witnessed more comprehensive and systematic critiques of higher education as it then existed. In 1907, Clarence F. Birdseye, lawyer, legal scholar, and father of the man who would revolutionize the frozen food industry, published Individual Training in Our Colleges. Birdseye, himself a college graduate (who in fact dedicated his book to his brothers in the Chi Psi fraternity), wrote not to denounce higher education outright, but to realign it with "business principles," which he repeatedly contrasts with "college standards." Birdseye's central argument elaborates on this opposition:


          If they had to compete with our ordinary business establishments, the colleges would have been long since distanced and bankrupted.

          They have escaped this fate because, owing to the continuing force of our reverence for a college education, they have ... had an

          unlimited public and private purse on which to draw, which never has asked for an accounting.


At several points, he expresses a wish for a "panic" among our colleges that would winnow the lot of them, forcing the survivors to run their operations with businesslike efficiency (189, 367). In the absence of such a radical development, he urges an assortment of remedies consistent with and, indeed, indebted to Carnegie's ideas. He advises faculty to imitate "a good manufacturer" who "studies more carefully than almost anything the wastes of his factory and the points wherein he can avoid these. You should learn from him" (364). He also encourages alumni to "help introduce business methods into the work of your alma mater" (370).


Birdseye extends his rhetoric even further than Carnegie, though, claiming higher education as a corporate entity many decades before it became commonplace to do so. He states unequivocally that "our colleges have become a part of the business and commercial machinery of our country, and must therefore be measured by somewhat the same standards" (189). He thus discusses universities in corporate terms, referring to the college as the "factory" (363) and students as the "product" (189). He has high praise for the Carnegie Technical School, founded in Pittsburgh in 1900, particularly for its policy of hiring its faculty on the basis of extra-academic professional expertise, "men who are in close touch with the ordinary problems of business life, and not merely good instructors in nonpractical courses" (266). His book is also replete with warnings that unless he has taken a "technical course," the traditionally trained college graduate has undergone an experience that "unfits him for business" (273-74).


No one in the early twentieth century wrote more ferociously on the topic of college as a waste of time and money than Richard Teller Crane, president and founder of Crane Co., a Chicago-based company that once manufactured 95 percent of the country's elevators and that is still part of the S&P 500 today. From 1909 to 191 l, Crane published three pamphlets, "The Futility of Higher Schooling," "The Futility of Technical Schools," and "The Demoralization of College Life," and a book, The Utility of All Kinds of Higher Schooling, each expounding on the reasons why he felt "out of all sympathy with educational institutions, so-called." Though much of his writing may seem only of antiquarian interest today, it was a noteworthy issue in the 1912 presidential election, which pitted Yale B.A. William Howard Taft against Johns Hopkins Ph.D. and former Princeton president Woodrow Wilson. In light of Crane's attacks, the candidates issued a joint statement reassuring the American public that higher education was not "the great curse of the country."


Crane began his research in 1902 by hiring a private investigator to spy on the comings and goings of Harvard undergraduates. After first deeming the findings of his P.I. "really too disgusting to print," he eventually published them, first in the August 1911 issue of one of his industry's leading trade journals, Valve World, and then as a  pamphlet. The Utility of All Kinds of Higher Schooling collects the results of questionnaires that Crane circulated to a large number of university presidents, college alumni, and prominent businessmen and then redacted to suit the negative outlook outlined in his pamphlets. He thus presents his brutally antiacademic conclusions with an air of empirical certainty. His interprets the timeless adage, "money isn't everything" as an accountant's pie chart that minimizes any but the most profitable kinds of knowledge: "If money is not the whole thing, I think it is safe to say that it is seventy-five per cent of the whole thing."


Though Crane affirms much of what Birdseye suspected about the tendency of college to unfit men for business, he extends his attack on liberal arts education far more broadly. His method in all of his writings is to praise knowledge of "things worth while" at the expense of "impractical, special knowledge of literature, art, languages or history." He argues that no man who has "a taste for literature has the right to be happy" because "the only men entitled to happiness in this world are those who are useful." He is even unwilling to grant an exception to technical courses, characterizing them as a belated and inadequate attempt on the part of traditional universities to remedy a long-standing curricular problem; in fact, he devotes a whole pamphlet to an attack on technical schools. Nor does Crane excuse Andrew Carnegie's softening opinion of higher education in his elder years. Crane mercilessly cites the anti-academic remarks in Carnegie's The Empire of Business (1902) against its author and asserts that the self-made multimillionaire's only motive for endowing the Carnegie Technical School was "to immortalize the name of 'Carnegie.' "