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Populist education

Wheaton professor’s new book on Populism’s influence on higher education

The historical influence of late 19th-century Populism on the development of America’s system of higher education is the topic of a new book authored by education professor Scott Gelber.

The University and the People: Envisioning American Higher Education in an Era of Populist Protest, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, traces how the interests of the powerful agrarian protest movement influenced the growth of public colleges and universities and continues to shape the mission of these institutions.

The book tells the surprising story of the extent to which the Populist movement advocated for public higher education, despite its anti-intellectual tendencies. In fact, Gelber demonstrates that Populist journalists, lawmakers and trustees and activists saw their support for higher education as part of its commitment to equal opportunity. Beyond occupational areas, the populist movement supported study of the humanities and social sciences, tolerated a degree of ideological dissent and lobbied for record-breaking appropriations for state institutions, according to Gelber.

The University and the People arose from Gelber’s Ph.D. dissertation, which won the History of Education Society's Claude Eggertsen Dissertation Prize.

A former New York City school teacher, Gelber says his scholarship arises from his interest in exploring differing societal perspectives on the value and purpose of education.

"Who should go to school and for what purposes? I wanted to analyze how our answers to these questions have evolved over time and how these answers may have distinguished public and private forms of higher education," Gelber says.

His current research project examines the legal history of American higher education from 1860 to 1960.

Reported by Emily Polinsky