At the dawn of the 20th century, very few American students attended high school, as the demands of the heavy-industrial and the agricultural economies of that period were ill-suited to an extended education beyond the family sphere. In the middle of the 20th century, most Americans who either aspired to or had to work entered the full-time workforce immediately after high school, for such a postwar economy featured plenty of growth and comparably fair wage-compensation for the average worker.
As the economy became more complex in its labor needs, its extending length of education complemented these requirements. The transformation of the agricultural economy into the technological economy after World War II, in turn, transformed the university, once the commune of the well-to-do, into a center for job training, an adjunct to industry, and one which continued to increase in enrollment as the technological necessities of an increasingly complex economy required further education. What was once the realm of the study of Christian religion, the Rennaissance humanists, and the AufklÃ¤rung became, for most students, the study of the technical labor necessary to produce and reproduce the new forms of capitalism and scientific production coming into existence.
The growth of the American middle class became co-incident with the growth of the education industries which had hardly existed a century previous, when the middle class itself had hardly existed in any recognizable form. Where there was study, there was hope for economic success-the maxim “if a man falls in a field he is redeemed in a library” comes to mind-and the institution of the university became as integral to living well in the United States as the ownership of property and the propagation of the nuclear family.