National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version

Spring 2001


Published in the Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council 2:1, Spring/Summer 2001. Copyright © 2001 by the National Collegiate Honors Council.


Anyone familiar with current initiatives in higher education is well aware of the increasing emphasis on public service as a component of an undergraduate degree, and the rhetoric of contemporary dialogues might well lead one to believe that public service is an entirely new concept in American higher education. This essay offers a different view. Far from being new, public service in one form or another was a significant element of the college curriculum from the seventeenth century until the Civil War. The reappearance of this notion, I believe, signals a rebirth, but at the same time marks a departure from the trends that developed after 1865. At the same time, the field considered here is somewhat circumscribed. This essay is concerned with American higher education, but not with all of it. There is no mention of community colleges, an omission some may find serious, even inexcusable, in any discussion of the role of service in higher education. Likewise there is scant attention paid to the denominational colleges and universities founded between the 1820s and 191 Os, which served the needs of an immigrant population and which also had significant service functions. In defense of these exclusions, I can say only that they occupy an interesting and important place in American higher education's past, but they are not central to the argument presented here.