Abstract: Should Your Boy Go to College? Mass Magazines, the Middle Class, and the Re-Conceptualization of College for a Corporate Age, 1890–1915

Daniel A. Clark


For too long historians of higher education and American culture have taken for granted the swift embrace of college education by Americans. Choosing to focus more on the changes within academia and professions as the source of expansion for American higher education, scholars have viewed the rising popularity of college as a natural by-product of modernization or of an expanding status-conscious middle class. Consequently, historians have overlooked how popular expectations of college may have shaped the demand for higher education and how the evolving conceptions of the benefits of a college education factored heavily into the emerging notions of class and masculinity around 1900. This paper seeks to examine some of the formative representations and visions of American colleges and universities in mass periodicals that helped to shape the broader public perception of the place of college in Americans' visions of success and identity (here male, middle-class identity). Essentially the nation's first truly national media, the mass magazines explored in this paper (<i>The Saturday Evening Post</i>, <i>Munsey's</i>, <i>Cosmopolitan</i>, <i>Collier's</i>, and <i>American Magazine</i>) functioned as a popular forum where editors, writers, contributors, and advertisers collectively redefined the ideal college education in ways that reflected the peculiar anxieties and longings of an emerging corporate middle class. In these magazines, the imagined benefits of a college education for a corporate businessman (posited as the American norm) coalesced around a vision of a hybrid curriculum that could at once instill the traditional liberal culture of a gentleman and the practical scientific mindset of the modern businessman. Visions of college and the new corporate businessman emerged together. Ultimately this popular vision of the curricular benefits of college as filtered through and widely disseminated by the mass media informed American expectations of and demand for higher education at least as much as any reforms within higher education or any demands of industrialists for personnel.