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The Evolution of the American University

by Jeff Worley

Photo of "A History of American Higher Education" book coverA History of American Higher Education
by John R. Thelin
John Hopkins University Press

Imagine the University of Kentucky without a basketball team.

Imagine the University of Kentucky without a library.

In writing A History of American Higher Education, John Thelin, a UK professor of educational policy studies, found some startling differences between universities of the 19th century and universities of today.

"One of the interesting things I found was that a lot of activities that seem totally normal today at our colleges and universities were in the past resented by college officials," says Thelin. "For example, athletics, studying modern languages, reading fiction, reading about and studying current events, even libraries. It wasn't until the turn into the 20th century that these activities were accepted."

The 19th-century college faculty and administration, he explains, usually had reservations about any student-initiated activity because it meant the faculty and administration were not in control. Intercollegiate sports—involving travel to other institutions—were often seen as a nuisance and distraction. "Eventually, presidents embraced sports because of their public-relations and fund-raising appeal," Thelin says, with a smile taking shape as he delivers the next line, "and as a sideshow to keep alumni and students happy and busy."

OK, sports. But why would university administrators resent a well-stocked library?

"Most mid-19th-century college presidents and their staff were preoccupied with order and accountability. Intellectual and literary exploration by undergraduates was distrusted and discouraged."

During his six-year-long investigation, Thelin drew on official institutional histories, biography, fiction, memoirs, legends, newspapers, government reports, and movies. And He was often surprised by what he discovered, saying that surprise is the scholar's delight.

"I discovered that larger universities in the early 20th century were architectural showpieces that attracted people for hundreds of miles around. Yale University, for example, attracted gawkers by the thousands who would marvel at the eight-story-high gymnasium, with its Gothic towers and gargoyles, which included two Olympic-sized swimming pools and even an indoor polo practice field."

Thelin dispels a number of myths that have been fueled by previous histories of higher education. For instance, there's the "historical fact" that several colonial colleges, including Harvard, were created to educate the clergy. Not true, says Thelin. "No, these colleges didn't, in fact, offer divinity degrees, nor did they ordain ministers."

And here's another myth: The Civil War was responsible for curtailing the development of colleges and universities, especially in the South. Not true, says Thelin. "Actually, the war provided the opportunity for Congress to pass the 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act, and this led to the creation of even bigger public universities."

Thelin took on this project as a continuation, of sorts, of Frederick Rudolph’s The American College and University: A History, published in 1962. This has been the book on this topic for 40 years. "But its limitation became more and more obvious as the years rolled by. Obviously, a lot has happened in higher education since 1962," Thelin says, adding that he deliberately started from scratch in writing his book.

Thelin says that while he is happy to have finished this book, he doesn't believe it's the final word on the subject. "Notice that I titled it A History of American Education, not the history," he says. "I welcome disagreements because I think on a lot of these issues there is no single answer. I hope this book triggers more and better discussions about the development of higher education in this country."

The Johns Hopkins University Press has nominated Thelin's book for three national awards: The Ellis Hawley Award from the Organization of American Historians, the Merle Curti Award from the Organization of American Historians, and the Outstanding Book of the Year, awarded by the History of Education Society.