Education - Business in United States of America

Education: After World War II

Education as a Business

School Spending, 1980-2005, in Millions of Dollars

Significance: 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:

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 voter’s 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.

Edward Johnson

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.

See also: business schools; child labor; Industrial research; Junior Achievement; National Science Foundation.

U.S. Department of Education: Friends and Foes

U.S. Department of Education: Gaining Cabinet Status

School Spending, 1980-2005, in Millions of Dollars

Education as a Business

Education: After World War II

Business schools: Early Business Scandals

U.S. Department of Education

A–Z index