The University of Wisconsin Press

Education / History / Politics


The University and the People
Envisioning American Higher Education in an Era of Populist Protest
Scott M. Gelber

Studies in American Thought and Culture
Paul S. Boyer, Series Editor

How the mission of state universities evolved from the
tensions between meritocracy and access, between elite knowledge and popular opinion

The University and the People chronicles the influence of Populism—a powerful agrarian movement—on public higher education in the late nineteenth century. Revisiting this pivotal era in the history of the American state university, Scott Gelber demonstrates that Populists expressed a surprising degree of enthusiasm for institutions of higher learning. More fundamentally, he argues that the mission of the state university, as we understand it today, evolved from a fractious but productive relationship between public demands and academic authority.

Populists attacked a variety of elites—professionals, executives, scholars—and seemed to confirm academia’s fear of anti-intellectual public oversight. The movement’s vision of the state university highlighted deep tensions in American attitudes toward meritocracy and expertise. Yet Populists also promoted state-supported higher education, with the aims of educating the sons (and sometimes daughters) of ordinary citizens, blurring status distinctions, and promoting civic engagement. Accessibility, utilitarianism, and public service were the bywords of Populist journalists, legislators, trustees, and sympathetic professors. These “academic populists” encouraged state universities to reckon with egalitarian perspectives on admissions, financial aid, curricula, and research. And despite their critiques of college “ivory towers,” Populists supported the humanities and social sciences, tolerated a degree of ideological dissent, and lobbied for record-breaking appropriations for state institutions.

“Gelber shows that the farmer’s movement was not hostile to higher education, but that it wanted public colleges and universities to behave differently—favoring greater access for underprepared and underfunded students, a heightened emphasis on practical rather than theoretical education, greater responsiveness to public opinion, and social science education that reflected Populist understandings of political economy.”
—David Danbom, author of The World of Hope: Progressives and the Struggle for an Ethical Public Life

Scott M. Gelber is assistant professor of education and assistant professor of history (by courtesy) at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.


“This well-organized, deeply researched book shows how academic Populists in Kansas, North Carolina, and Nebraska in particular worked to redefine the meaning and purpose of U.S. higher education in the late nineteenth century.”
American Studies Journal

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The cover has an image of a mortarboard with a pitchfork for a tassel representing the common man

September 2011
LC: 2011011569 LB
266 pp.    6 x 9     7 b/w illus.

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Paper $29.95 s
ISBN 978-0-299-28464-0
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"This well-written, well-organized, and well-argued book offers the first complete analysis of Populist influence on public higher education in the United States in the late nineteenth century."
––Adam R. Nelson, author of Education and Democracy



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Updated January 4, 2012

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