Promises Made: The Truman Commission Report at 75

Solicited by the History of Education Society

Friday, March 31, 2023, 1:30 PM - 3:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Education; Postwar

Papers Presented

Why Historians Favor the Harvard Redbook over the Truman Commission Report, and What They Get Wrong

This historiographical paper reviews and critiques the many treatments of the Harvard “Redbook” (General Education in a Free Society, 1945) in recent historical literature and probes why historians of American higher education have not shown the same level of interest in the Truman Commission Report, despite the fact that both documents appeared around the same time with high visibility on similar topics. The paper also critically examines companion efforts to Harvard's general education program at other elite universities, including Princeton and Yale, and explores why Princeton president Harold Dodds led a round of vigorous public criticism of the Truman Commission Report, perhaps diminishing its long-term status and its perceived salience to the history of higher education.

Presented By
Ethan Schrum, Azusa Pacific University

A Promise for Simple Justice: Latina/o and Black Student Activism in the 1960s and 1970s Midwest

The history of the creation of campus cultural houses and ethnic studies programs in the Midwest, beginning in the 1960s, is grounded in the political, social, cultural identities of populations who emerged as college students in the post-Civil Rights era. Their lives as students mirrored the context of their lives in their communities as is evident in the activism they engaged in on campuses across the country, not prepared or at times not interested in meeting their needs. More so, their lives as students were a reflection of their dissatisfaction with higher education’s response to their needs as students, especially as their numbers and resources were limited. Across the U.S, from Chicana/o students demanding the establishment of ethnic studies programs in San Francisco, Black students organizing at Northwestern University in Illinois, to Puerto Rican students challenging for access to resources at City University of New York, the 1960s and 1970s struggles offer us a reading of the limitations of the rhetoric of the Truman Commission report, whose ambitious attempts did very little to eliminate prevailing racial, gender, and class inequities that continued to harm students of color. This paper situates the U.S. Midwest as a site to map the response of Black and Latina/o students across institutions of higher education who positioned their dissatisfaction and ensuing activism as a tool to create the potential for the change the Truman Commission aspired, under their own terms. Through the fight for programs to increase their enrollment, ethnic studies programs centering their histories and lived experiences, as well as cultural centers that spoke to their need to feel anchored and at home at these institutions, their activism serves as a legacy of the broken promises of Higher Education for American Democracy.

Presented By
Mirelsie Velazquez, University of Oklahoma

American Superiority, Democratic Idealism, and the Truman Commission

The Truman Commission Report is an invaluable contribution to the progression towards a more inclusive system of American higher education. However, given the context of the post-World War II United States, this commission and the resulting report were not efforts to open the doors of higher education to all who seek it or even all who were qualified. Rather, this report and the institutional expansion that resulted positioned the federal government to have a direct role in higher education, allowing Presidential agendas and dominant ideologies to dictate the course of college and university curriculum, access, and purpose. Although historically this perspective is considered a positive change, it is arguably the exact opposite – after the establishment of the commission and the publication of the report, higher education became one more social institution manipulated by political agendas, inundated with ideological influences, adaptations to power relations, limitations to access, and purpose crafted by outside influences. Contextualizing how the Truman Commission and the Report facilitated the exact opposite result of the advertised purpose of democratization of higher education is the goal of this work. To uncover this relationship between ideology, power, and higher education, I employ methods of the Discourse Historical Approach (DHA) to extract evidence of injustice cloaked in the language of democratic idealism. Discourse analysis allows the researcher to take text as a point of entry into a network of practices that obscure relationships of power and result in social injustice. Within discourse, networks of practice are established by moments, defined as dialectically related elements including discourse, power, social and material practices, institutions and rituals, and values, beliefs, and desires. Each moment is represented through discourse, facilitating analysis of discourse in context, allowing for the extrapolation of language and representations that are incongruent with the perceptions of democracy presented, in this case, in the Truman Commission Report.

Presented By
Allison Palmadessa, Greensboro College

A Good Crisis: Emergencies and the Reframing of American Higher Education, 1944–1965

This article is rooted in new archival research in the LBJ Presidential Library and document analysis of six federal reports and laws, including related task force reports and Congressional hearings, that constitute a two-decade policy cascade that dramatically changed the federal role in shaping college-going: the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (the GI Bill) and its 1952 reauthorization (the Korean War GI Bill), the 1947 “Truman Commission” Report, the 1958 National Defense Education Act (NDEA), the Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963 (HEFA), and the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA). I conclude that the original GI Bill was a contingent event that, coupled with the Truman Commission Report three years later, gave higher education partisans and their allies in Washington the rhetorical and ideological basis for a vast expansion of federal largesse directed towards colleges, universities, and their students. From the narrow purposes of 1944 came the powerful notions that college-going was a tool that could solve social and economic problems, defend the nation and its values, and chip away at prejudice and inequality. Throughout the following two decades, policy shapers harnessed the language of emergency and exigency to make an urgent case for expanded funding. They also increasingly privileged the public sector of higher education, normalizing the idea of generous taxpayer subsidies for colleges and universities. The payoff, by 1965, was a federal state and a national polity that no longer needed any convincing of higher education’s critical role in American security and greatness, and was therefore happy to commit to funding it in perpetuity.

Presented By
Ethan W. Ris, University of Nevada, Reno

Session Participants

Chair and Presenter: Ethan W. Ris, University of Nevada, Reno

Commentator: Ethan Hutt, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Presenter: Allison Palmadessa, Greensboro College

Presenter: Ethan Schrum, Azusa Pacific University

Presenter: Mirelsie Velazquez, University of Oklahoma