Pusey on Higher Education

American Higher Education 1945-1970: A Personal Report Harvard Univ. Press, 198 pp., $10.00

AS PRESIDENT OF Lawrence College from 1944 to 1953 and Harvard University from 1953 to 1970, Nathan M. Pusey '28's career as an academic administrator extended over some of the most dynamic and momentous years in the history of American education. The two-and-a-half decades following World War II proved a tremendous boom period for higher education; the number of colleges and universities rose sharply, as did the number of students attending those institutions. Academic curricula were revised and expanded in order to keep pace with the weight of new knowledge; graduate education came into its own; faculty positions increased and faculty salaries recovered from the depressed level they had remained at during the first half of the 20th century. From the vantage point of the '70s, the years 1945-1970 seem to be a halcyon period. Institutions of higher education assumed a more important role in American soc iety, acquiring new prestige along with increased responsibilities.

This period of expansion and growth was both a result of, and a response to America's emergence as a leading world power. College enrollment increased from the widespread belief that the new technocratic and industrial society demanded, as never before, large numbers of highly trained and educated individuals. As Americans felt called upon to play an active role in world affairs, area studeis were started to provide new information about non-Western cultures (notably the USSR and China); a recognition of the importance of science and technology in the modern world led to the massive amounts of federal aid pumped into university research facilities. These were substantial achievements in the field, even if they were won at the cost of increasingly heavy dependence on federal funds and some confuction as to what purposes education should serve.

Pusey's new book records the changes that took place in a clear, readable, if un-illuminating, fashion. Factual in content and very general in tone, American Higher Education 1945-1970 contains little with which one can take issue. Displaying the same aloof, non-interventionist style which characterized his tenure at Harvard, Pusey takes refuge in irrefutable statements or vague and equivocal conclusions. Every controversy discussed has two sides whose respective merits are duly presented but seldom weighed. The book is a tribute to the achievements won by higher education, rather than a critical study of education during this period, its failures as well as triumphs.

The title of Higher Educationwill undoubtedly mislead many readers. The book is not an account of Pusey's years as college president. Despite the addendum, "A Personal Report," his writing remains determinedly impersonal. Neither a sense of Pusey's personality nor of his role at Lawrence or Harvard ever emerges--the first person singular intrudes less than half a dozen times in the course of the book. Harvard is often cited but only as a model for certain national trends in education and a convenient source for statistics.

NOTWITHSTANDING ITS MEASURED, impartial tone and its concentration on national trends and general educational advances, American Higher Educationis fueled by its author's determination to assert the accomplishments of the post-World War II years, a determination born out of the role Pusey played in many of those achievements. For many readers, the most interesting section of the book will be the chapter dealing with the conflicts in education. As a college president during the Red-hunting years whose opposition to McCarthy gained him national prominence, and as one whose career eventually foundered on the Harvard Strike of 1969 Pusey's account of these years possess an intrinstic interest, less for what he actually says than for what we know of his role. Here again Pusey provides a general overview of the developments that took place, but for the first time a note of personal passion and conviction appears. The attitude of moral outrage which Pusey adopted during the student outbreaks in 1969, his indignation that "Harvard men" could act in such a way, continues even nine years after the event. If the '50s were a "scoundrel" time in American history, Pusey considers in the student rebellion in the late 1960s even more reprehensible.


One way or another, through a combination of intent and circumstance, this new breed of scoundrels gained a hearing with their contemporaries, and, with their ranks swelled, in the later 1960s turned on those imagined creatures of the Establishment, the very colleges and universities which had nurtured them, and on campus after campus occupied--or, as they would say, "liberated"--buildings, threw their rightful occupants out, demanded, marched, smashed, and destroyed with such vocal shrillness, vehemence, and brutality that for a few years normal academic life was brought almost to a standstill.

Scant attention is paid to the deeper issues beneath the student riots, which were responsible for the sympathy they evoked in less radical students. In one of the more personal comments Pusey allows himself to make in the book, he alludes to his feeling of betrayal, not only by the student body but by the Harvard Faculty as well, who criticized him for his isolation from campus opinion and his response to the SDS occupation of University Hall:

My principal personal unhappiness in all of this sprang from the fact that members of faculties often seemed less mature than the majority of students in their readiness to accept contrived student protests at face values and to encourage misdirected demonstrations rather than to stand firm against them.

Here, as in the latter portion of the book dealing with educational aims, the removed narrative voice and the aura of opacity pervading the book disguises a justification of policies that academic administrators--hence Pusey himself--adopted during this period.

Long in summary but short in analysis, American Higher Education 1945-1970: A Personal Report remains a compendium of general facts, trends and statistics, which deals with, but never quite confronts, important issues still pertinent to American education. In an era marked by shrinking budgets, a declining student population and a swelling number of highly educated people for whom no jobs exist, institutions of higher learning have entered a new crisis period. Pusey's easy optimism consequently strikes a jarring note. His report provides information on past achievements but fails to supply any insight into how the more pressing problems facing American colleges and universities today might be resolved.