When Harvard was founded in 1636, the American higher education mission revolved around training the leadership elite. This was a direct application of the academic model of England, referred to by some as the Oxbridge model, a reference to Oxford and Cambridge Universities. While the exact founding of Oxford is unknown, some construct of informal instruction has occurred there for over 900 years making it the oldest institution of higher education in the world. Cambridge followed in 1200 B.C. and together they represent not only a societal mission but also an architectural vision.
The societal mission was to cultivate civility through the production of expert scholars. College was a place for the leaders of the world to convene, share and enrich each other’s knowledge, and commence driving society towards a noble capitalist end. This type of education was theoretical in nature, which is in significant contrast to our current educational goals of hands on, applied learning to train a society’s workforce.
The architecture vision presented to the world an insular community that promoted the elitism of its members. Within the quadrangles of the institution, disciplines resided within independent buildings, creating yet another layer of insularity and elitism. The buildings themselves were works of art, places of inspiration. The term “ivory tower,” which is often used to describe an elite college, is a Biblical reference. The tower is a place for contemplation free from concern for survival. As you all know, I am a biologist and I would of course argue that survival is why we learn anything in the first place, but survival is dirty. To survive you need to be hands-on in life. The scholars of this early American model were not meant to get their hands dirty. Rather than were meant to lead, culturally and religiously, those who drive society with their sweat and hard labor.
The whole idea that a leader must stay at a distance from his subjects might arise from this paradigm for higher education. Both the educational purpose and the visual messaging inherent in the Oxbridge model reinforced the separation of classes within society. In fact, within the institution, class ranking is preserved as a function of time spent at the university. Privilege arises from tenure and even this basic tenet is at the core of American society and workforce development, although this is shifting to some extent; with greater numbers of students in the modern era, the singular mission of American higher education to train leadership elite is nuanced into leadership and training opportunities for every sector of employment.
Lucas, C. J. (2006). American higher education: A history. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Thelin, J. R., & Gasman, M. (2003). Ch1- Historical Overview of American Higher Education. In S. R. Komives, & D. B. Woodard Jr. (Eds.), Student Services: A Handbook for the Profession (pp. 3-23). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.