Centralization and Education: Oil and Water

In an article praising the original College Board examination system, begun in 1900, American education historian Diane Ravitch surveys how the collegiate screening system has been dumbed down, first by the original scientific examination experts of the 1930s, then by World War II, then by more educational bureaucrats after 1948, and finally by the U.S. government. She offers this conclusion:

Under the old regime of the College Board, the nation’s schools had standards that were uniform, predictable, and elevating; they were written and revised by those who were in the nation’s classrooms. Today the states and the federal government have taken over the responsibility for setting the nation’s standards. So far the results are unimpressive. It is by no means clear that public officials, given political and bureaucratic constraints, can accomplish what the College Board once did — or that they even know what ought to be done.

As critics of the Federal government enjoy saying, “Surprise! Surprise!”

All this was predictable. And, as her article shows, it was predicted. She refers to a pair of nameless critics of the original College Board program.

Not everyone was thrilled with this new plan. The president of Princeton University worried that it would lead to a state examination system. Eliot assured him that that was not even a remote possibility. The president of Lafayette College complained that it might prevent the college from admitting the sons of wealthy benefactors and faculty members. Butler assured him that Lafayette, if it chose, could admit “only such students as cannot pass these examinations.”

It would have been helpful if Dr. Ravitch had gone into greater detail at this point. But, being a member in good standing in the guild of professional educators, she did not even bother to name these individuals. They were clearly men of the old order, the dark ages of American higher education. They were antediluvian.

Yet, somehow, they were correct. They predicted exactly what has happened. Dr. Ravitch’s tone of surprise indicates that she is unable to understand how the national testing process deteriorated into today’s system. She does not ask the obvious question: How was it that the two unnamed critics saw it coming? Was there something inherent in the original reform that caused this?

I have a suggested answer: centralized control of the screening process by salaried academics rather than by those who fund the system and pay their salaries. Such a system of centralized certification and control is always bad for any endeavor, but for religion and education especially. In other contexts, we refer to this process as “hiring foxes to guard the henhouse.” It is the problem faced by civil governments everywhere: “Who guards the guardians?” So, it is worth looking at who the major players were and what they stood for.


The unnamed president at Princeton was Francis L. Patton. He is long forgotten today, especially given the fame of his successor, Woodrow Wilson, who replaced him in 1903 after the Princeton Board of Trustees bought Patton off with a huge retirement settlement. Patton then took over as president of nearby, but institutionally unconnected, Princeton Theological Seminary, Old School Presbyterianism’s last academic bastion.

Patton was an Old School Presbyterian, the most hard core of the American Presbyterian tradition. He had gained national attention a quarter century earlier as the prosecutor of a heresy trial in Chicago against a liberal pastor, who quit before he was convicted. For this service in the defense of the official confession of the Presbyterian Church, he was hired by Old School inventor and entrepreneur Cyrus McCormick to run McCormick Theological Seminary. Patton at Princeton (1888—1902) was a defender of the older system of higher education in America: Christian, traditional, and based on the knowledge of the Bible and the biblical languages.

Today, on Princeton’s web site, we read this about Patton:

Faculty accounts indicate that Patton lacked initiative in important policy matters, resisted meaningful curriculum reform, and was lax in matters of discipline and scholarly standards — in short, as one colleague said kindly, he was “a wonderfully poor administrator.”

There is a reason for this damning by faint praise: Patton resisted the inroads of the academic humanists on the faculty.

Wilson engineered a coup in 1902, despite the fact that Patton had hired him and had defended him when he came under attack for being absent from his classes, due to his many off-campus lectures, for which Wilson was paid very large honorariums. Wilson was an ungrateful back-stabber throughout his career. Anyone who trusted him was eventually sacked for insubordination. Patton was his first major victim.

Patton’s chief academic opponent was Harvard’s Charles Eliot, much praised by Dr. Ravitch. Eliot was a humanist who spent his career at Harvard undermining the last traces of conservative Unitarianism. He deliberately hired known heretics, such as Crawford Toy, to undermine the religious faith of Harvard’s students. He was also the first major defender of the elective system: modern languages, science, math, and history in place of Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and the Bible.

Patton and Eliot actually toured the country, debating each other over the elective system vs. the older Christian curriculum. Eliot won that battle. He was part of a systematic program to secularize American higher education. The main institutional tool was the graduate seminar, imported from Prussia, which was strictly secular. The pioneer institution was Johns Hopkins, which produced Wilson. In 1876, in its second semester of operation, Johns Hopkins had invited Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog,” to inaugurate the first full academic year. (This systematic process of secularization is described in George Marsden’s detailed book, The Soul of the American University.)

Nicholas Murray Butler, identified by Dr. Ravitch as Eliot’s colleague in the College Board’s creation, was a major figure in American higher education. He was the co-founder in 1887 of what later became Columbia Teachers College, the primary institutional wedge of the progressive educationists’ takeover of the American public school system. He became acting president of Columbia University in 1901 and president in 1902, a position that he held until 1945.

He was also a major figure in the American political establishment. From its inception in 1905, he was on the Board of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He persuaded Carnegie to establish the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1910. He ran it as president from 1925 to 1945, after which Alger Hiss took over. (Hiss was the hand-picked successor by liberal Presbyterian elder John Foster Dulles — one of “Wilson’s boys” at Princeton — who was Chairman of Carnegie at the time.)

From his early days as a graduate student in Berlin, Butler became a close friend of Elihu Root, who is deservedly identified as the original “Chairman of the American Establishment,” the predecessor of Henry L. Stimson and John J. McCloy. Butler was powerful enough to win the Republican Vice Presidential nomination under Taft in 1912, the year Wilson won.

In short, Butler and Eliot were by far the biggest academic players in the undermining of the American higher education system’s independence from the people who actually financed it: alumni, parents, and the State.

There was another necessary step: the takeover of college faculties. This process accelerated in 1902 with the creation of the General Education Board, funded by John D. Rockefeller, Sr. This organization gave great wads of money to colleges, but only if the college hired Ph.D. graduates of the secularized university system. The strategy worked. In response, colleges began to hire Ph.D.s, who replaced the theologians and pastors who had staffed the faculties in the nineteenth century.

The General Education Board was the first organization to call for the accreditation of colleges, which heretofore had been independent. It promoted the accreditation system of America’s medical schools, the first great success in the move toward centralizing control over higher education in America.

Let us now look at the career of the second unnamed opponent of the College Board. The president of Lafayette College in 1900 was E. D. Warfield. He was the brother of Old School Presbyterian’s leading theologian, B. B. Warfield. He served as president from 1891 to 1914. He understood Eliot’s game plan.

In 1905, Warfield hired a professor who then began reading William James and John Dewey. He began to teach the higher criticism of the Bible — what Crawford Toy had been hired by Eliot to teach at Harvard in 1880. This was in opposition to the confessional standards for the faculty at Lafayette, so Warfield went to the Board of Trustees and advised that the professor be fired. The professor quit under fire in 1913.

This decision by Warfield was an affront to the professorate’s concept of academic freedom, a concept promoted effectively by university professors in Prussia in the 1820s to protect them from interference from state bureaucrats, despite the fact that the professors were on the state’s payroll. In America in 1900, private universities were still governed by boards that represented the alumni and donors. The boards actually exercised power, unlike boards today. The professors chafed under the reign of the old fogies, who attended back when the faculties were staffed by Christians and former pastors.

In reaction to Warfield’s assertion of a board’s lawful control over the content of education taught in a privately funded college, a group of professors at Johns Hopkins came together in 1913 to discuss a plan of self-defense. This led to the creation of the American Association of University Professors in 1915. Its goal was to force the tenure system onto colleges, so that college presidents could not interfere with “academic freedom.” The first president of the AAUP was John Dewey of Columbia University, the major figure in the American progressive education movement in the twentieth century. The AAUP soon became the primary trade union lobbying organization for the American professorate. (A summary of this story, favorable to the AAUP, is found here.)

Step by step, the centralization of higher education and tax-funded lower education has marched forward since 1900. The creation of the College Board in 1900 was part of this systematic, comprehensive effort.

What we need is a detailed study of the accreditation process, whereby the General Education Board’s plan to gain control over higher education in America became the licensing system that the U.S. government now exercises over higher education. This story has yet to be told. With the Internet undermining the mainstream media, the academic accreditation system is part of the last bastion of control by the Establishment over the transmission of knowledge in the United States.


Dr. Ravitch laments the erosion of the natiinal exam-based screening process of 1900. That process was done in the name of educational performance. That was the bait. The hook was centralized power over the content of higher education. The line was money — Rockefeller’s initially, then the State’s. From 1902 forward, the academic community on campus fell for this: hook, line, and sinker.

So, let us not lament the loss of the good old days of 1902. Step by step, those days became the bad new days, just as Francis Patton warned — not merely in 1900, but as early as 1888, when he took over as president of the College of New Jersey. (It was under Patton in 1896 that the school got its new name: Princeton University.) He saw it coming, and he warned against it.

To avoid such errors in the future, let us adopt and then enforce this principle: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” It is the defection of the tune-payers that is the heart of the problem.

March 13, 2006

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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