Monday, June 24, 2024

Tufts’ Sol Gittleman, author of “An Accidental Triumph: The Improbable History of American Higher Education.” (Photo: Tufts University)

At 89 years old, retired Tufts professor and provost Sol Gittleman is tired of hearing Americans reminisce about the good old days.

“The good old days are now,” he says, particularly when it comes to universities.

American culture, he explains, has always been linked inextricably with anti-intellectualism. We’re a tribe of football lovers, hamburger eaters and sweat-streaked athletes – there is no place for the hunched scholar in the idealistic American vision. There is also no denying the fact that American universities lead the world in every possible way. According to a recent study by the London-based Times Higher Education, 16 of the top 25 universities are American. We also dominate the Nobel Prizes, with almost four times more prizes than the U.K., the next runner-up. We are, to a core, a nation of students, but Gittleman thinks we don’t want to admit it. Instead, we write endless articles and books disparaging our higher education system, always comparing ourselves to others – the latest being with the scientific research Chinese universities churn out.

Gittleman’s newest book, “An Accidental Triumph: The Improbable History of American Higher Education,” which was released Sept. 15, is meant as a retort. An in-depth history of higher education, the book begins in the early 1700s, when universities were practically extensions of churches. Many major present-day colleges were originally founded for this purpose: Harvard for the Congregationalists, Yale for the Calvinists and Brown University for the Baptists. Most professors at these schools taught religion; of the 99 students who graduated from Dartmouth’s first 10 classes, 46 became clergymen. And there were not unusual class sizes – universities were small, though not for lack of trying: They spread across America like a swarm of fleas and died just as quickly. In the years leading up to the Civil War, 38 of the 40 colleges founded in Texas were shut down due to disease, lack of funding or other factors. Students, despite their religious upbringing, were menaces as well. Professors had to sleep with rifles under their beds for fear of being beaten or pistol whipped. Alluding to historian Martin Trow, Gittleman sums the era up well: “We have offered Europeans nearly two centuries of innocent amusement at our expense.”

This American comedy continued up to the mid-1900s, though of course many Europeans didn’t have access to higher education either. Russia was a nightmare for Gittleman’s grandparents – the Russian revolution and bloody civil wars that came with it devastated the country. After scraping together $25, they managed to grab their kids and board a boat to America around 1920. In the United States, the government was better, albeit not very welcoming. Just four years after the Gittlemans emigrated, the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act was implemented, ending all migration from Asia and restricting immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. “Nobody could get in,” Gittleman told Cambridge Day, “especially not Jews.”

African Americans were sorely disadvantaged as well. While advances in universities were made at the time, such as a bill passed in 1862 to provide Northern universities with federal land, this show of governmental support helped only some. Another bill aimed at the South, the Second Morrill Land Grant Act of 1877, required that schools either prove that race was not a consideration in admissions or create a separate institution for people of color. This was the beginning of years of segregation and “separate but equal” policies, with the 17 Black colleges woefully underfunded, understaffed and neglected. The privileged white universities struggled as well, though less. The applicant pool was small, and the students’ knowledge was as well. Only 6 percent of all students eligible for college in 1900 had graduated from high school. Thus, attendees didn’t apply themselves – it was considered “ungentlemanly” to study too hard, or have high grades. Universities split into two very different sections: an undergrad full of immature youth taking remedial education courses, and an intensive graduate program based on the successful research universities in Germany.

Gittleman faced a similar anti-education culture during his childhood. More so than today, 19th and early 20th century America was obsessed with sports and sports only. For Gittleman, college meant football – the first time he’d heard of American universities was at the movies, watching the Marx Brothers’ “Horse Feathers,” in which a college president tries to win a football game. He didn’t know anyone who went to college; it was the 1930s, and he lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, a small suburb of Irish Catholics. His parents didn’t know anything about higher education either – they’d never been to an American school. His mother taught herself how to read and write through movie magazines, and when Gittleman would bring home his report cards, she’d say that his brother was doing better (he wasn’t). During Gittleman’s senior year of high school, his baseball coach came to his house one day and told him he’d signed him up for a little Methodist college called Drew. It wasn’t much, and it was still in New Jersey, but for Gittleman it was transformative.

Gittleman was fortunate to come of age when he did – just a few years earlier and he would’ve had to directly face the wave of eugenics that was well established across American higher education. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 “The Great Gatsby,” the character Tom Buchanan speaks for many college students when he says, “if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged.” Lewis Terman, an esteemed Stanford professor of education psychology, agreed, stating in 1916 that “high grade or border-line deficiency … is very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among negroes … From a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.” Racism was not just common in the early 1900s – it was socially and scientifically acceptable. Gittleman writes that in those first decades of the 20th century, eugenics was taught across college campuses, and the 1916 textbook Genetics and Eugenics by William E. Castle of Harvard was the teaching tool of choice in most biology classrooms.

With influxes of immigrants, the focus of eugenics shifted to Italians and Jews. In Harvard, a Restrictive Immigration League was started in 1894; two future presidents of Harvard and MIT were members. The Ku Klux Klan was also widely accepted during the 1920s; “The Birth of a Nation,” the 1915 film that inspired a revival of the KKK, was a favorite in Woodrow Wilson’s White House. Unlike the 1960s, the Klan was active in the South and North and targeted Blacks, Jews and Catholics.

Gittleman, a boy at the time, was lucky to live in a Catholic town where he was safe from the Klan. “No KKK members marched through Hoboken,” he said. “If you wore a white hood, you got your head broken.” Gittleman still faced his share of antisemitism. As a kid, he learned how to say “please don’t hit me” in many different languages, because beatings were always a possibility. To make friends, he would bring classmates’ spelling books home and do their homework. “You survived any way you could,” he told Cambridge Day. “You managed.”

During World War II, eugenics, antisemitism and higher education changed forever. This reform was due largely to the ugly name Hitler gave to the field of eugenics through his horrifying killing of 6 million Jews. Hitler managed to destroy Germany’s esteemed universities in the process; he eradicated all Jewish professors and references to Judaism (such as Einstein’s “Jewish physics”). By 1935, nearly 1,200 Jewish scientists had lost their positions, and non-Jews with Jewish spouses were pressured to leave as well. While the United States was initially reluctant to take in exiled German academics, eventually the Rockefeller Foundation set up a special committee to assist American colleges and universities bring in refugees. Some universities benefited greatly. The Tufts Medical School, a failing institution with a suspended accreditation, turned around within a year after the employment of 13 brilliant German scientists and became a top institution. Universities around the United States were transforming, learning from the German methods of research, organization and education.

For Gittleman, World War II had a very different meaning. Every family member he had in Europe died except for one his family brought to America around 1945. That boy’s parents were killed in the camps; he survived because he tailored Nazis’ clothing. Still, nobody talked about it, Gittleman says, and they didn’t discuss Israel either. “My parents didn’t want to go to Israel, no other Jews wanted to go to Israel – they wanted America,” Gittleman said. Outside Gittleman’s home, discussions were even sparser – while Gittleman spent the war worried for family members abroad, America “didn’t want to make a big noise out of the Holocaust,” he said. In Hoboken, this was also because information was hard to find. Gittleman’s first home was one room in the back of the family candy shop with three beds for him, his brother and his parents; a bathroom; and an icebox. Gittleman didn’t have a typewriter as a child, not to mention Google or minute-by-minute updates from The New York Times.

After World War II, antisemitism declined. Universities, suddenly, were also facing enormous success; the GI Bill, passed to give veterans an easier reentry into normal life, had unintended consequences. Among the bill’s promises of unemployment aid and housing assistance was hidden the gift of free college tuition. GIs took advantage, flooding American universities. Tufts graduate and scientist Vannevar Bush also vastly improved our higher education system – around the same time, he managed to create, through Congress, the National Science Foundation. This agency provided federal grants for academic research, previously funded by private sources only. With this unprecedented burst of students and increased governmental support began the “Golden Age” of American college education.

For Gittleman, who became a professor in the 1950s, this was an age of extreme luck. Jews were traditionally restricted from university faculty positions, but the flood of veteran students caused selection processes to fly out the window. Colleges needed as many professors as they could get. “Deans were desperate to find anyone with a Ph.D. and a pulse, whether scientist, social scientist or humanist,” Gittleman writes.

Gittleman started teaching at Tufts in 1964 and never left. He liked the area – Cambridge, he says, has always been diverse. In the beginning, Jews, Italians, Armenians and Irish immigrants used to live in tenement houses in the West End of Boston, by the Charles River. Urban renewal projects ended up destroying these homes, pushing Jews to towns such as Sharon and Stoughton. The character of Cambridge and Boston changed in Gittleman’s eyes. Still, today we see a diversity of a different kind blooming through our streets, with almost a third of Cambridge’s population being born out of the country.

For Gittleman, who now lives in Lexington, life here has been good. He has enjoyed being a professor, and believes our institutions are still better than ever. “I like to teach,” he told Cambridge Day. “I wanted to teach kids about things they didn’t need to have a prerequisite for – they didn’t need to know anything. They showed up. They had a pulse. They could breathe on a mirror, and I could teach them.”