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The Proposal for George Wythe University

A Renaissance in Education

In 2006 an internal George Wythe Foundation white paper outlined the case for George Wythe University.  This document will be published in its entirety in The Statesman over the next several months.  What follows is Part I. Click here for Part II.

The Case for a Renaissance


"The ones who come out on top are the ones

who have been trained in the hardest school."



The first question of any college or university is: What is our mission? The second is, How well do we accomplish it?

Unfortunately, in our modern times a third question is needed: What is the de facto mission of the university, the mission that the school is actually pursuing?

Former Harvard President Derek Bok noted with concern that our universities are now chasing the market over everything else. Another former Ivy League President, Frank H. Rhodes of Cornell, wrote that given the new market realities our universities must change or become dinosaurs. James J. Duderstadt, former President of the University of Michigan, which many people consider the premiere public university in America, argued that American universities and colleges must change to match the new market or decline along with the rest of our industrial age institutions. In short, modern academia knows that significant changes are needed. But where exactly are we in the historical evolution and progress of higher education?1

The College and University in America

Roger Gieger’s book, The Ten Generations of American Higher Education, provides an excellent overview of where American education began, where it has been, and where it is headed.

The first generation of American education began in 1636 and ran until the early 1740’s. During this period America’s first college’s were founded, including Harvard, William and Mary, and Yale. Harvard and Yale were established by churches to train ministers, while William and Mary was designed to help train political leaders in the New World. All three were four year programs, with the first two years covering classical languages to prepare students to read the various classics. In the last two years students read the great classics of world thought, guided by young faculty known as Associate Mentors. Schools typically had less than 100 students and about ten Associate Mentors, and the school was run by the head teacher or President who was chosen by a lay board of trustees.

Generation two, from 1745-1775, saw the establishment of numerous “colonial colleges,” including King’s College, the College of Philadelphia, the College of Rhode Island, Dartmouth, Queen’s College, and the College of New Jersey (Princeton). Again, nearly all of these schools emphasized study for the ministry, and many were established specifically to increase the doctrinal purity of religious instruction. During this period schools began using Enlightenment works as part of the curriculum; many of them in modern languages.

The Republican Era, from 1776 to 1800, significantly increased the influence of the Enlightenment in American higher education as the college curriculum followed the breaking away of the new nation from the Old World. Schools during this third generation were still small. For example, Harvard had three professors and ten Associate Mentors while Yale had one professor supported by a few Associate Mentors. The quality of education their graduates exhibited was incredible.

From 1800 until the 1820s colleges put a lot of effort into fundraising and trying to find the finances needed to operate. As part of this, schools began offering professional degree programs in medicine and law. Still, the central focus of these small schools remained the preparing of ministers.

The fifth generation of American higher education from 1828 to 1860 could be called the Sectional Divide. During this period, the national split between the cultures of North and South impacted higher education. In the South, denominational colleges continued to grow and flourish in the training of ministers, while the influence of Enlightenment thinkers Hume, Locke, Turnbull and others led to a new type of Northern classical college which emphasized preparatory training for citizenship and the professions—law, medicine, teaching and the clergy. The Northern professional programs grew more rapidly than Southern colleges. For example, the average number of students in Southern colleges was fifty-six, compared to the average of one hundred seventy-four students in the Northern classical colleges.

The focus on religious learning in higher education ended with the South’s loss in the Civil War, and from 1860 to 1890 the Northern schools turned from the British and Scottish Enlightenment to the German University as the model of higher education. For three decades the American system systematically adopted the structures and traditions of the German Academy, including the following:

  • A Centralized University
  • Academic Departments
  • Graduate Studies
  • The Bachelor Degree
  • Professional Preparation as the Focus of Bachelor Level Studies

Three other trends during the sixth generation include the establishment and proliferation of 1) women’s colleges, 2) agricultural colleges and 3) the rise of colleges in the American West, which applied elements from Northern, Southern and European colleges.

The seventh generation marked a distinct shift from the earlier two centuries. The Industrial Age brought big changes to business, transportation, government, the military, lifestyle, and of course to the university. The quarter-century from 1890 to 1915 changed nearly everything about American higher education. Most of all, the university system standardized and then grew. The average American college or university in 1870 had ten faculty and ninety-eight students; by 1910 the average was thirty-eight faculty 374 students. Schools already had programs in ministry, law, medicine, teaching and agriculture; they now added engineering, business, dentistry, art, architecture, music and various other specialties. Administrations grew large, sometimes larger than the faculty. Universities broke into numerous colleges, and colleges divided into departments. The four year curriculum offered a classical education for the first two years followed by two years of job or career training.

This trend continued during the “nationalization” generation from 1915 to 1945. Accrediting agencies enforced the standardization of the curriculum, and many schools became interchangeable. Enrollments doubled. The number of colleges proliferated. To the old college system was added junior colleges, teacher colleges, and urban universities for the middle class. As demand grew, the older and more prestigious schools adopted a selective admissions system.

The stage was set for the huge growth of the 1950s spurred by the return of thousands of young men from war along with the GI Bill. In this ninth generation of American higher education, from 1945 to 1985, college became a possibility for almost everyone. The first two years of classical education were dropped in favor of a full four years of job training with only shallow general education courses, and graduate degrees proliferated. With the widespread system of American colleges and network of degrees, faculties and accrediting agencies, college became a norm of American life and job preparation.

The tenth generation completed the industrial age expansion. Colleges and universities had long since stopped being a check on business and government, instead choosing to become extensions of the government-industrial-corporate complex. Indeed, during this period schools decided that they were businesses like any other business, simply responding to market needs in order to survive and grow. The new mission of most American colleges and universities, regardless of their published mission statement, was “to effectively deliver whatever the market demands.” While perhaps viable as a mission statement, this left much to be desired for the institutions that once considered themselves “hallowed halls of learning” or great “promoters of freedom and knowledge.”

Current Trends in Higher Education

We are now in the eleventh, generation of American higher learning. Excoriated by Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and a host of other polemics outlining the decline of higher education, the universities nevertheless flourish in the market—for now. The leading current trends in higher education include:

  • A central focus on market branding (selling the name of the university in order to attract clients)
  • Hiring of academic superstars
  • Research contracts over teaching (during the 1980s and 1990s, the priority was publishing over teaching)
  • The deterioration of academic standards
  • The degradation of the humanities and liberal arts
  • Running departments as profit centers (e.g. running the English Department or Art Department like the Athletic Department)
  • The increased use of technology as a replacement for direct student-teacher interaction
  • School leaders are now businessmen, not educators
  • Teachers are now on par with factory workers, often paid less
  • “Can” has replaced “should” as the governing value of most schools
  • Accreditation agencies often follow all these trends themselves; all of higher education seems to see the market as the ultimate source
  • The new goals of schools are to have the highest cash flow and the highest average graduate income rate
  • The rise of for-profit schools (with some positive results, but also speeding up negative trends)

From a market perspective, all of these trends may be positive. In terms of education, learning and national freedom, however, this is a disaster. Make no mistake, a generation of conveyor belt politicians and bureaucrats will never be a generation of statesmen. Without a superb knowledge of history, our leaders will repeat its worst mistakes. Without a foundation in the greatest ideas of mankind, our leaders will act only based on the market with today’s market report taking the place of the Bible or other central classics. Truth will be replaced with power and then force. Perhaps the strongest proof of this direction is how few modern Americans even realize or believe it.

Ironically, even the market leaders in modern academia realize that their day is over, that if the industrial age is ending then the universities must drastically change. There are currently four major views about what lies ahead for America:

The Social Conservative View is that our society will face drastic challenges in the years ahead, economic problems, societal decay, major conflict and “hard times.” In this view, we must prepare for the coming tough times by being smart, frugal, and judicious today. Good times will come again after a period of crisis, but our focus should be to adequately prepare our nation for the crises ahead.

The Fiscal Conservative View holds that capitalism has won the day, and the world is finally safe for democracy. Prospects for world economic growth have never been better, and we should busily focus our national resources on spreading capitalistic values far and wide around the globe. Great days of prosperity are just ahead!

The Liberal View agrees that capitalism has won the global conflicts of the Twentieth Century, and the Twenty-first Century offers an unbounded opportunity for world prosperity. Unfortunately, says the liberal perspective, the cost of increasing prosperity seems to be a rising gap between the rich and the poor—and government must intervene with stronger treaties, international organizations, and global controls to ensure that all the peoples of the world get their fair share of our increasing wealth.

The Libertarian View is that government continues to dominate economies and slow growth. Business and technology are poised for great and positive changes which will help solve many of the world’s problems, but government and religions remain the leading obstacles to progress and must be overcome.

Historically, it would be the role of the university to analyze these views, show their strengths and, most importantly, publicize their weaknesses. In history, governments, business, churches, media, the university and the family stood as six separate but equal institutions that checked and balanced each other when needed and stopped the excesses of the others if they got out of line.

Nearly all universities are now philosophical extensions of business and government, dependent on research grant monies to survive and taking orders from their betters. Freedom cannot survive unless the university regains its independence, and that means it must adopt a higher value than the market.

Many modern educators and administrators have spoken out on the need for change in higher education. A few have suggested possible solutions to restore the university to its proper role as a leader of society, an institution on the same level as government, church, corporation, media and family. Indeed, to restate this for emphasis: In a democracy, these entities form natural checks and balances upon each other—whereas in a monarchy, the government dominates them all. In an aristocracy, they are all subservient to business and the market. In the Twenty-first Century, the rise of a global corporate-government aristocracy is nearly a fait accompli.

Nearly all educators agree that the university is in dire straights, as discussed recently by one of the leading thinkers of the 20th Century, Peter Drucker: “Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. It is as large a change as when we got the first printed books.” William Wulf concurs: “If you believe that an institution that has survived for a millennium cannot disappear in just a few decades, just ask yourself what has happened to the family farm.”

The university knows that it is in trouble, and some of its most credible leaders have spoken out on the need for change. Here are the leading suggestions on what to do to fix the university:

Derek Bok, former President of Harvard, says the university must set clear standards that it will not compromise, such as not accepting students because their parents make donations to the school or because they are good athletes.

Richard S. Ruch, a former President at DeVry, believes that the university must go where the market directs and be responsive as a successful business must.

David Kirp, a professor at Berkeley, says we must convince the public to subsidize higher education, to fund it through government so it does not have to bow to the market.

George Marsden, a professor at Notre Dame, proposes that each university have a religious studies department.

Johnson, Kavanagh and Mattson, editors of the Steal This University: The Rise of the Corporate University and the Academic Labor Union, write that the answer is to formally organize academic labor unions where professors keep corporations from controlling the university

James J. Duderstadt, former President of the University of Michigan, says that the industrial age is over, and with it, the industrial age university. To survive, the university will have to reinvent itself. His suggestions for doing this include new corporate boards instead of lay boards, increased high tech learning options, alliances among institutions with differing specialties, and a rebirth of the college level of learning, among other things.

Eric Gould, a professor at the University of Denver, suggests that every department, not just the humanities, should adopt a quality general education program rooted in the classics—with emphasis on our civic responsibilities.

Dinesh D’Souza of the Hoover Institute, states that colleges have declined due to policies of affirmative action and programs of extreme political correctness and has written numerous books and articles chapter arguing that getting rid of such policies and philosophies will fix American higher education.

Frank H. Rhodes, former President of Cornell, says the university must change or become a dinosaur. It must change both by maintaining its good points: residence studies, strong faculties, quality research, etc. and by increasing its focus on these things instead of others. It must also deliver learning the way the market wants.

These ideas represent the highest level of the current debate, and while there are some good ideas here, nothing comes close to lasting solutions that will really make the difference. So much for the current generation of deep thinking about modern education and the role of higher education in the Twenty-first Century.

If we go back one generation, to the point in time when the thinkers were actually educated in the classics before taking up their careers, we learn much more that is valuable to the quest for an ideal college system.

Mortimer Adler, an editor of the Great Books, suggests that fixing modern American education is attained by not teaching anything of practical, applicational value. That is, education can be improved by ignoring job training and doing what schools were meant to do in the first place: educate through the classics. Encourage self-education and stimulate human excellence. Ironically, the result of colleges and universities actually providing superb education is that graduates are more equipped to think, innovate and lead in the corporate and career world. By emphasizing job training in the schools, we have chosen to graduate non-educated workers who must be trained on the job anyway and only rise to leadership through personal gifts and “networking” with “influential superiors.” The training of leaders, the fundamental role of the college, is ignored.

Jacques Barzun, a leader of the great books program at Columbia a generation ago, suggests 68 changes that are needed in the university system, including:

  • “The faculty, which is the university, must convey at every turn what education is; therefore must reduce and disdain the opportunities for professional cant”
  • Be “. . . choosy about new projects”
  • Focus on teaching over research
  • The university must maintain its role as the “guardian of learning,” not sell off to the highest bidder
  • Teach the 3Rs better and more often
  • Put learning ahead of credentials, or better still, end credentials.
  • Get out of the housing business
  • Recover academic independence from the government, corporations, and other funders
  • Stop taking grant money for non-education purposes
  • Make it clear to society that education is public service
  • Create “cluster colleges”: colleges which do their own thing, but work in proximity with others
  • Focus on the university’s role as the keeper of learning, and drop everything else
  • Stop doing everything else, and start educating!

Allan Bloom, bestselling author of The Closing of the American Mind, suggested as late as 1987 that the only hope was to re-emphasize the classics in all parts of the undergraduate curriculum. This excellent suggestion, the true hope of the university, was widely discussed and hardly implemented.
Robert Hutchins, former President of the University of Chicago, wrote in 1936 in The Higher Learning in America that each university has four goals:

  1. Liberal Education—to train citizens and leaders for the nation.
  2. Academic Education—to train researchers and professors for the university.
  3. Professional Training—to train students in specific work skills for the market.
  4. Political Education—to train government and quasi-government workers for the state.

According to Hutchins, every college impacts all four, but every college also chooses one master—to the detriment of the other three. The history of American higher education, Hutchins says, is numbers 1), 2) and 3), and we are rapidly moving toward 4). He labels the history of American education as Education for Liberty from 1780-1860, Education for Learning from 1860-1940, Education for the Market from 1940-2010(?), and Education for Government Bureaucracy as the legacy of the Twenty-first Century.

His solution to this trend of the deterioration of higher education, was that in every generation, regardless of the outside trends, a few schools must choose #1, Education for Liberty. If this happens, he said, liberty will perpetuate. If not, history dictates that liberty will wane. He was right.

And finally, Josiah Bunting, former Superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute and currently with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, wrote in An Education for Our Time that old schools will not make the necessary changes to train citizens and statesmen for liberty and so the founding of new colleges is necessary. This excellent book outlines how an ideal college, focused on the classics and training leaders, can significantly impact the future of a nation and the world. He was also right.


“Education is a full-time task. University endowment or state subsidy is for education;

it is a misuse of funds and talent to embark on other than educational efforts.”

~Jacques Barzun~


Next month's installment will discuss the debate for "the ideal" institution to combat the aforementioned problems.

The Proposal for George Wythe University was written in 2006 by Shanon D. Brooks, then CEO of George Wythe College, based on ideals and plans formulated by Oliver DeMille during the 1990's.  The Proposal was presented to the George Wythe Foundation board of trustees and the American Academy for Liberal Education at the time of GWC's application for accreditation.

1. Much of the introductory sections were written by Oliver DeMille. Used by permission.