Kathryn Primrose

Higher Ed: Past & Future

Higher Education: A Historical Pursuit of Excellence

The American higher education movement has been one hallmarked by constant, persistent change – and rapid change at that. In comparison to other nations and cultures, some of which who took thousands of years to evolve their educational systems into what they are today, the United States has quickly escalated through many an educational milestone since its conception a relatively short 250 years ago. This can be considered partially due to the fact that the melting pot characteristic of the U.S. itself has aptly lent itself in compiling some of the greatest minds, strategies, and ideas seen by mankind for the sole purpose of creating a nation born in the modern ages, and dedicated toward propelling civilization even further down that path. Through the maze of checkpoints passed to reach what present day higher education looks like in America, it is critical to realize the significant turning points at which the U.S. made substantial leaps and movements to propel these advancements to a level of unprecedented proportions – “a point of no return,” one might say. To depict three of the most dramatic such escalations in American history, a point of no return is indeed an understatement.

Not long after the first settlers set foot on American soil, the Massachusetts Law of 1647 was passed establishing the mandate that all towns containing a minimum of 50 families would be required to employ a local schoolmaster to teach the children to read, write, and other basic forms of knowledge. At this time in history, it was not uncommon for children to simply grow up within the realm of their family and proceed to train for and become whatever profession their family had historically established, frequently without the need for any sort of formal education other than that which was passed down to them from a father, mother, or other community member. With this new law, a cultural and political norm was established that thrust formal education by a hired educator into a far more significant role. Another reason for the passage of this law was the hope that it would more aptly prepare youth to go on to attend institutions of designated higher education. With this new bridge between domestic tradition and the opportunities that came with formal and designated schooling, as well as the beginning of the establishment of a relative “track” for students to follow through an educational structure, the traditional patterns of occupation, knowledge, and communal commitment to bettering the youth through knowledge marked an extremely significant shift in the young country merely decades after its initial foundation.

Once this communal niche of youth education became mandated, established, and implemented – things would never be the same.


As the need and desire for formally increasing the intelligence of youth was further built upon through other forms of legislation and became an increasingly key component of culture, educators, community members, and policy makers alike began to push towards a standardized way of measuring just exactly how intelligent these students were. In 1916, the modern invention of the “IQ test” was born. This intelligence quotient was a way to measure both the current status and the implied future capabilities an individual possessed in regards to the “gaining and retaining” of knowledge and intellect. Not only did this test give educators a practical and relatively proven way to sort students according to academic aptitude, but it also intensified the notion of superiority via intelligence and in turn stimulated the competitive desire for such a status. This discovery and implementation increased the capacity for disparity among students as well as cast a sharper light and pressure on the idea that a greater level of knowledge, and being able to scientifically compare yours to that of another, has the capacity to grant distinction and opportunities that vary greatly depending upon where one might fall on the scale, thus both promoting the American Dream and contradicting it in one blow.

Once a concrete way to separate students based on core intelligence was implemented and the arguable method of “sorting out” individuals based on where they might place became established and increasingly common – things would never be the same.


In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education included in their report a recommendation that computer science be included in the requirements for high school programs across the nation. Not only was this a progressive acknowledgement of the rapidly changing times and forms of technology becoming available, but a rather progressive motion implying that it was something necessary and critical to be taught in the national school system. By choosing to equip students with the skills to effectively operate what was then still a relatively new form of technology to be diffused into the general population, America was in turn changing the way that students viewed, accessed, learned, mastered, and communicated information. In the mere 40 years since then, it has become quite clear why such a recommendation was made. The integration of computers and increasingly modern digital technology not only in education but in everyday life, the work force, and the future at large has been overwhelming if not almost frightening, changing the very nature of communication between humans and the world around them in a more significant way than perhaps many could have ever conceived.

Once computers, their opportunities, and their need became introduced and soon ingrained into the American educational culture – things would never be the same.


Significance is always seen through whatever lens the beholder chooses to layer upon his subject. Throughout the relatively brief history of the American higher education system, and especially upon examining the Historical Timeline of American Higher Education (http://www.eds-resources.com/educationhistorytimeline.html), a frankly astronomical number of significant events have occurred to transform this uniquely American system into the complex animal that exists today. However, three of what I have determined to be the most markedly significant of such events have changed the face of this identity in a transformational way difficult to parallel. By implementing political requirements and introducing a new cultural norm, by not just hoping to introduce intelligence but to compare and compete it, and by acknowledging the changing mediums of learning and necessity, the United States truly has seen a wide spectrum of historical movements within the realm of education. But perhaps the most wonderful hallmark of all, one that you won’t find on any timeline or in any textbook, is the constant, persistent, and determined undercurrent characterizing a thirst for innovation and excellence that courses through the veins of every American student, every teacher, and every individual committed to the transformational aspect of education itself.


And whenever the first unknowing Americans stepped off of that boat, took a glance around, and took a stride forward in so many more ways than simply a physical step – things would ever be the same.


  1. Kathryn, this is so beautifully written! I loved it.

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