Education has played a central role in shaping the abilities and attitudes of owners, managers, workers, and consumers. It also has become a major business, encompassing private schools at all levels, technical and trade institutes, and producers of educational supplies and books.

Education is a search for ways in which society can both benefit from as well as limit the variety of individual experience. Accordingly, American attitudes toward education have always been ambivalent. In America as a Civilization (1957), cultural historian Max Lerner made the following comment:Education

While most Americans value education as the road to “know-how” and business advance, they suspect it when carried into political action or expressed in social attitudes.

The early impetus to education in the United States derived from the practical needs of what was still a predominantly rural, agricultural society. The need for applied knowledge in areas such as agriculture was a central motivation in the establishment of land-grant institutions of higher learning in the nineteenth century, despite the earlier view that education ruined people for agricultural work. However, education was perceived as essential in producing the informed and intelligent voters democracy requires, the key to promoting social mobility, and a way for the country to assert its status among other nations.

Spiritual needs also encouraged educational development. Founded by immigrants who espoused a variety of religious viewpoints, the United States established a long tradition of valuing religious freedom. Many educational institutions in the United States began with religious missions, and religious values (such as family, patriotism, and professional ethics) for a long time provided a counterweight to strictly economic considerations. The proper relationship between private, especially religious, education and public education has been the subject of continuing debate. During the course of the twentieth century, the United States completed its transformation from a rural to an urban, and from an explicitly religious to a nominally secular society.

After World War II

The history of American education since World War II[World War 02];educationWorld War II has been one of ever-greater federal concern over and involvement in local educational practice. The war brought home the importance of science and technology in national defense and made the ongoing development of expertise in those areas a national priority. In addition, the postwar G.I. Bill encouraged veterans to go back to school, building up the middle class and transforming American higher education in the process. A massive infusion of federal dollars into education during the 1940’s effectively created the research university. As corporate-sponsored work came in later years to supplement or supplant government-funded research, universities gradually learned to recoup some of the profits of their breakthroughs by technology-transfer partnerships and other forms of participation in commercialization.

During the 1950’s, educational policy became entangled with the debate about racial discrimination, as the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) forsook its longtime contentment with the separate-but-equal provisions of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). The slow implementation of the new requirements resulted in controversies over busing and, in some parts of the country, white students enrolling in private rather than public schools. Residentially based mechanisms for educational support, such as property tax, were partially reformed, but real educational equality remained elusive. Debates about the merits of affirmative action programs proliferated, as immigration shifts and demographic patterns ensured that increased diversity would be sought in the worlds of both business and education. A controversial emphasis on multiculturalism drew on both concern about racial (and other) diversity and commitment to religious freedom.

At the same time, the emergence of the Space racespace race, subsequent to the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, resulted in a frantic effort to beef up American education, especially in science and math. However, in the ensuing decade, increased governmental support of education was colored by student activism growing out of the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, new demands for educational relevance, and a series of student rebellions on college campuses during the late 1960’s. The end of the Vietnam War and the subsequent abolition of the military draft seemed largely to quell middle-class student protest. The later 1970’s and the 1980’s saw the transformation of radical yippies (members of the Youth International Party) into ambitious yuppies (conservative young urban professionals), as social discontent came to be viewed by advertisers as merely another market segment (exemplified by Nike’s controversial use in 1987 of the Beatles’ song “Revolution” as a jingle in a commercial for athletic shoes).

In 1983, the U.S. Department of Education’s report A Nation at Risk renewed the critique of American educational practices and called for a return to fundamentals. Conservative pundits were soon arguing that the 1960’s radicals had taken over the educational establishment, substituting social engineering and political correctness for teaching the skills required in the modern workplace. In 1992, the U.S. Department of Labor produced the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills reportSecretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) report, which sought to promote workforce development by aligning American secondary education with anticipated business needs for the coming century. In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001No Child Left Behind Act gave schools across the country the mandate to develop and meet specific measures of educational outcomes. Whether these initiatives helped or hindered educational progress has not been definitively determined.

During the 1990’s and after, the effects of computerization came to be felt in both business and education. Computer industry;educationComputers began to be used by both school administrators and students. Computers could be used to write papers, perform complex statistical and mathematical functions, and to do research. Computer and technology savvy students and college administrators communicated through e-mail and cell phones. In addition, efficient communications, effective process control at a distance, and cheap transportation combined to free both business and educational activities from their traditional limitation to particular localities. This led to distance learning, from online courses at colleges and universities to online learning at the elementary level.

Education as a Business

The twentieth century saw much criticism of the influence of businessmen and corporations on schools, colleges, and universities. The increasing emphasis on business models and methods in education after 1900 has been associated with the declining influence of classical (Greek and Roman) content, as well as with the increasing emergence of practical or technical courses of instruction. William H. Maxwell, superintendent of the New York City schools, complained in 1913 that manufacturers were no longer using the apprenticeship method of training workers and were finding it difficult to find skilled workers. Instead, he said, manufacturers were asking the public school system to assume the task of training workers.

Under the pressure of business and political concerns, educators have often learned to see their own activities in managerial terms. They were, some suggest, thereby capitulating to the sway of money. However, as people have come to view education as primarily about increasing their earning power rather than enhancing personal discovery, social engagement, or civic responsibility, it is no surprise that business models of efficiency and effectiveness play an increasing role in education. Proponents view this change in education, like the similar transformation in medicine, as welcome and long overdue. To its supporters, the business model in education has not only been the harbinger of greater economic efficiency but also has led the way to greater concern with the actual needs of students, who, perhaps increasingly, do not fit traditional models and are instead working students, first-generation college students, and students from underrepresented populations. Critics charge that any such benefits come at a high cost, as the business model imposes its standards on what ought to be understood in terms of other, noneconomic values.

Some enthusiasts for the business model, however, believe that it alone can save educators from themselves by imposing discipline and returning power to the consumer. This is often associated with an argument that anything run by the government must go awry. Critics may concede this, while still insisting that private enterprise is also subject to distorting factors. Because this is one of the fundamental debates about the role of business in American society–and people often change their view depending on whether the latest scandal involves bureaucratic inefficiency or contractor fraud–the question of education’s role in a business society that is also a democracy will not be settled soon.

Further Reading

  • Berg, Gary A. Lessons from the Edge: For-Profit and Nontraditional Higher Education in America. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005. Sympathetic account of the rapid development of the for-profit university at the end of the twentieth century.
  • Bok, Derek. Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. The former president of Harvard University argues that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, American universities showed signs of excessive commercialization.
  • Bowie, Norman E. University-Business Partnerships: An Assessment. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994. Measured assessment of the advantages and dangers of academic-industrial joint undertakings such as technology transfer.
  • Callahan, Raymond E. Education and the Cult of Efficiency: A Study of the Social Forces That Have Shaped the Administration of the Public Schools. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962. Classic analysis of the shift to business values and methods in education at the beginning of the twentieth century, including the establishment of a managerial self-image within the newly emerging discipline of educational administration.
  • Coulson, Andrew J. Market Education: The Unknown History. New Brunswick, N.J.: Social Philosophy and Policy Center/Transaction Publishers, 1999. Detailed history of the free-market approach to schooling, which argues that “government involvement in education tends to interfere with the very principles it is meant to advance” (391).
  • Veblen, Thorstein. The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men. 1918. Reprint. New York: Cosimo, 2007. Critique of the influence of business on higher education, by one of the twentieth century’s most famous radical social critics.
  • Whittle, Chris. Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education. New York: Riverhead Books/Penguin, 2005. Enthusiastic defense of a market-based approach to school problems by the founder of Edison schools, an innovator in private, for-profit secondary education.

Affirmative action programs

Business schools

Child labor

U.S. Department of Education

G.I. Bill

Industrial research

Junior Achievement

National Science Foundation

Space race