From Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas (Norton, 2010), 97-101


Academic disciplinarity is an episode in the history of the division of labor. The disciplines accompanied the emergence of the modern research university, between 1870 and 1915. That period, only forty-five years, was the big bang of American higher education. It saw the creation of new institutions and the conversion of existing ones to the model we know today: a program of undergraduate instruction joined to a graduate and professional school operation designed for the training of researchers and the production of specialized research. Almost every aspect of higher education that we are familiar with dates from this period: undergraduate electives; the requirement of a bachelor’s degree for admission to professional school; graduate schools for the education of specialists to educate the undergraduates; the expectation that faculty will have doctorates and produce scholarly publications; the articulation of the principle of academic freedom, signaled by the founding of the American Association of University Professors, in 1915. And two other things: the establishment of national professional associations for professors, and the creation of the modern academic departments.

The historian Walter Metzger says: “Between 1870 and 1900, nearly every subject in the academic curriculum was fitted out with a new or refurbished external organization—a learned or disciplinary association, national in membership and specialized in scope—and with a new and modified internal organization—a department of instruction made the building block of most academic administrations. These were more than formal arrangements of the campus workforce; they testified to and tightened the hold of specialization in academic life.” We can see the creation of the external organizations that Metzger mentions in the evolution the American Social Science Association, which was founded in 1865 as a group for amateur students of a broadly defined range of social science subjects. After 1880, the association split up rather rapidly into separate groups of modern language teachers and scholars, the MLA, founded in 1883; the American Historical Association, founded in 1884; and associations for economists, in 1885, church historians, in 1888, folklorists, in 1888, and political scientists, in 1889. The American Mathematical Society was formed in 1888, the American Physical Society in1889, and the American Sociological Society in 1905—all university-based communities of academic professionals, jealous of the autonomy of their disciplines and (as is still the case) with no umbrella organization coordinating their researches.

At the same time that these national scholarly associations were rapidly establishing themselves, universities were undergoing an equally rapid period of department formation, and by 1900 a departmental system of administration was in place in most of the leading schools. In short, academic work was completely restructured within the span of a generation. And the restructuring accompanied a dramatic expansion of the entire system. In 1870, there were 563 institutions of higher learning in the United States with 52,000 students. By 1890, there were 977 institutions and 238,000 students. In 1930, 1,409 schools enrolling 1.1 million students. There were 5,553 professors in the United States in 1870. In 1890, there were 15,809, and in 1930, there were 23,868. That’s an increase of 400 percent

in thirty years.

The rise of the modern university and the emergence of the modern academic disciplines are part of the same phenomenon, which is the professionalization of occupation. Professionalization means two things: credentialization and specialization. And those are the reasons why higher education transformed itself in that period between 1870 and 1915 was so that it could operate as the main social institution involved in the production and distribution of those attributes of the professional type. Universities are very good at this: they have requirements for entrance and requirements for exit. They are very good at credentialing specialists, which is to say, they are very good at producing professionals.

So the period that saw the creation of the academic disciplines and their national associations was also the period that saw the professionalization of occupations like medicine and the law, in the form of the creation of national associations and the gradual tightening of requirements for entry into practice. The American Medical Association was founded in 1847, the American Bar Association in 1878. A bachelor’s degree was not required for admission to the Harvard Medical School until 1900. It’s important to see the professionalization of academic work in this larger context.