What It Means to Be American
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Ideas

The Pioneering Cornell Anatomist Who Sought to Bring ‘Honor’ and ‘Duty’ to College Life

At the Turn of the 20th Century, Burton Green Wilder Railed Against Frivolous Activities and Thought Privileged Students Should Hold Each Other to Higher Standards

By Richard M. Reid
November 8, 2018

In 1901, Cornell University students created a new holiday on campus, called “Spring Day.”

Many faculty members objected to the holiday, but few were as visible and vocal as professor Burt Green Wilder, who would go on to become a defining, if little-known, figure in American higher education.

Spring Day built upon a relatively new tradition: During the 1890s students began holding a dance and fundraiser, the Navy Ball, prior to major fall regattas. Not surprisingly, on the day of the regatta, …

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Places

When Baltimore Medical Students Were Free to Rob the City’s Graves

In 19th-Century Maryland, Stealing Corpses Wasn't a Crime. And a Half-Dozen Medical Schools Needed Cadavers.

By Antero Pietila
October 25, 2018

Railroads changed everything. The formation in 1828 of the nation’s first common carrier, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, revolutionized transportation, altered people’s sense of time and place, and knitted America together into a nation.

Among the many unforeseen consequences of this transformation was this peculiar note: Body snatchers digging up graves could quickly ship corpses to medical schools needing dissection material. The story of how grave robbing flourished in Baltimore for more than 70 years reveals both the dysfunctional underside of …

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Identities

How Attending Elite Universities Helped Mormons Enter the Mainstream

Through Higher Education, Latter-day Saints Joined the U.S. Meritocracy and Transformed Their Own Identity

By Thomas W. Simpson
July 9, 2018

The history of Mormon “Americanization” has long puzzled those who try to understand it.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, Mormons, under immense pressure from local and federal authorities, jettisoned their utopian separatism in favor of monogamy, market capitalism, public schools, national political parties, and military service. The question is, how can any human institution—much less a religion that historian Martin Marty has called the 19th century’s “most despised large group”—change so much so quickly?

The answer lies in understanding …

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Ideas

How Universities Migrated into Cities and Democratized Higher Education

Colleges Once Thought the Countryside Bred Character. Now They Use Cities for "Hands-On Learning"

By Steven J. Diner
August 31, 2017

Since the end of World War II, most American college students have attended schools in cities and metropolitan areas. Mirroring the rapid urbanization of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this trend reflects the democratization of college access and the enormous growth in the numbers of commuter students who live at home while attending college.

Going to college in the city seems so normal now that it’s difficult to comprehend that it once represented a …

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Identities

My American Languages

I First Learned English, Then Spanish, to Navigate My Identity in This Big Country

By Manuel H. Rodriguez
April 24, 2015

Sister Paula, our eighth grade teacher at Holy Cross Elementary School in South Los Angeles informed us one morning in 1944 that Fridays would be devoted to public speaking. Which meant that each of us, standing in front of the class, had to recite something we had memorized. She said we could recite anything we wanted. Most boys opted to tell jokes.

When my name was called, I stifled an inner groan (I was very shy), walked to the front of …

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Engagements

When Homework Is a Matter of Life and Death

My Parents Fled Iran Because They Were Forbidden From Getting an Education There. I’ve Spent Over One-Third of My Life on a University Campus.

By Roxana Daneshjou
March 6, 2015

The first hint of sunlight glows off the horizon as I rush toward Stanford Hospital from the parking garage, white coat in hand, stethoscope bouncing against my chest. Every few steps, the diaphragm of my stethoscope ricochets off the silver pendant my mother gave me—a nine-pointed star etched with a symbol of my Bahá’í faith. My mother escaped Iran at 17 as the country was on the cusp of revolution—a revolution that would create a society where, to this day, …

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