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A History of American Higher Education

reviewed by Todd Ream - 2005

coverTitle: A History of American Higher Education
Author(s): John R. Thelin
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 0801878551, Pages: 421, Year: 2004
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Coming to terms with the history of higher education in the United States is no easy task. On one level, the obvious heterogeneous nature of the current set of institutions that comprise academe provides a formidable challenge. On another level, even at their point of origin, the oldest colleges in the country were far from homogeneous. The fact that the founding parents of these institutions were perhaps Anglicans, Baptists, Congregationalists, Jesuit Catholics, Presbyterians, or Quakers, to name only a few, affirms such a point. In his A History of American Higher Education, John R. Thelin argues that the best way for higher education officials to analyze today’s institutions is “to work with unwieldy sources and disparate materials in archives and files” (p. xviii). Despite the near limitless complexities of the history of higher education in the United States , he rightly believes working through the history of these institutions sheds light upon their current realities. As a result, while John Thelin’s A History of American Higher Education is a readable and concise introduction to this subject, it also propels audience members to develop an appreciation for the heterogeneous nature of the stories definitive of academe story as a whole. 

In order to help his audience members develop an appreciation for the heterogeneous nature of these stories, Thelin contends he must “gently upset some conventional notions about how colleges and universities have developed and behaved” (pp. xiii-xiv). Areas Thelin believes need special consideration include “such volatile matters as institutional costs and effectiveness; admissions and access; and the character of the curriculum and the extracurriculum” (p. xiv). As a result, the claims about the successes and failures of higher education in the United States are held to a standard defined by the diverse nature of the institutions themselves. Thelin discusses a matter such as admissions and access not simply from the vantage point of a particular set of institutions but from the vantage point of a wide cross-section of institutions. For example, narratives defining the application process for students applying to research universities are held in tension with the narratives defining the application process for students applying to liberal arts colleges. Although Thelin is not averse to arguing for the existence of observable trends and norms, he rightfully leaves his audience members with the impression that any identifiable trends and norms are highly complex and rife with exceptions.

In order to argue that the observable trends and norms in higher education are highly complex and rife with exceptions, Thelin’s history of higher education in the United States is, for the most part, chronological. Like most histories of higher education, he begins with the colonial colleges and then works his way forward through discussions of comprehensive colleges and the rise of the research universities. However, most of Thelin’s efforts to tell the stories of American higher education are vested in the period beginning with 1880. Not only does he commit more of his text to covering this period of 124 years than to the previous 224 years, his narrative examples concerning this latter period also become more robust and thus more supportive of his argument that institutions of higher education are more complex than one might assume upon first glance. One fascinating example is found in Chapter Six, “Success and Excess.” In this chapter, Thelin takes a critical look at the claims launched around the promise demonstrated by higher education between World War I and World War II. He argues that “On the one hand, the creation and the growth of these [eight particular flagship] state universities heralded the expansion of stable public higher education” (p. 249). He also argues that conclusions concerning these institutions are not so simple to determine. “On the other hand, patterns of enrollment and degree completion reinforce the finding that the prototypical American state university was not first and foremost a home for advanced scholarship” (p. 249). As a result, the unwieldy sources and the disparate materials offering insights into the history of higher education can at times yield conclusions best described as being paradoxical in nature.

Thelin’s historical methodology and his subsequent presentation of the history of higher education in America make significant contributions to the current literature in this field. In many ways, Thelin’s volume is similar to works such as Frederick Rudolph’s The American College and University and Christopher J. Lucas’ American Higher Education: A History in that his work attempts to span the entire course of the history of higher education in the United States . However, in relation to Rudolph’s work, Thelin contends that his “account extends the domain to include analysis of the historical significance of other understudied institutions, such as community colleges, women’s colleges, and the historically black campuses” (p. xx). Thelin’s more intense focus on the period of higher education since 1880 in some ways parallels the work of Roger Geiger and Laurence Veysey. Again, whereas their focus includes research universities, Thelin attempts to expand that domain to include that same set of understudied institutions. In addition, Thelin’s narrative approach to history sheds light on different facets of American higher education than Geiger’s very detailed approach to understanding some of the same institutions.

Whereas the narrative approach to history Thelin incorporates generally adds to the strength of his volume, a more detailed approach could at times also help to clarify some of the assertions he offers to his audience. For example, the references which he makes in relation to John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University and the lectures and publications that preceded that volume are perhaps misleading. Thelin contends that “The lecture series was cut short for lack of interest in Dublin . Publication of the lectures was delayed for years, and when they finally did appear, it was in condensed form” (p. 88). In reality, a very different picture emerges when one looks into the details of Newman’s work. The university Newman sought to establish undoubtedly faced several challenges. However, the chapters which now comprise most versions of The Idea of a University were originally a set of lectures given in the spring of 1852 and a set of pamphlets released in the fall of 1852. The set of lectures was published in 1852 as Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education Addressed to the Catholics of Dublin. The set of pamphlets was immediately released and then gathered together for publication in 1859 as Lectures and Essays on University Subjects. Both volumes were placed under one cover and given the title The Idea of a University in 1873. 

Regardless of any possible shortcomings, John R. Thelin’s A History of American Higher Education is a welcome addition to the literature in this important area. Thelin’s encouragement for educators to involve themselves in the details from the past of their respective institutions will only enhance the nature of their decision making and their leadership. Related to this sense of encouragement is his commitment to understanding the heterogeneous nature of academe in the United States . Although an administrator at a liberal arts college in the Northeast can learn something about his or her institution by reading about a research university in the Midwest , he or she must also connect with the narratives that make his or her own institution unique. In essence, he or she must be able to make those voices a part of his or her own voice. Beyond the trends and norms Thelin helps to identify, the enduring value of his important volume is that the unique dimension of the story of American higher education is in reality rooted in the fascinating stories of the individual institutions that comprise it. In essence, John R. Thelin is to be commended for reminding us all of this important point. 


Geiger, R.L. (2004).  Research and relevant knowledge: American research universities since World War II

Somerset , NJ : Transaction Publishers.

Geiger, R.L. (1986).  To advance knowledge: The growth of the American research university, 1900-1940

New York NY Oxford UK Oxford University Press.

Lucas, C.J. (1994).  American higher education: A History

New York , NY St. Martin ’s Griffin .

Newman, J.H. (1852).  Discourses on the scope and nature of university education addressed to the Catholics of Dublin

Dublin , Ireland : James Duffy. 

Newman, J.H. (1873).  The idea of a university defined and illustrated

London , UK : Basil, Montagu, Pickering.

Newman, J.H. (1859).  Lectures and essays on university subjects

London , UK : Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts. 

Rudolph, F. (1962).  The American college and university.

Athens , GA London , UK : The University of Georgia Press .

Veysey, L.R. (1970). The emergence of the American university. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 7, 2005, p. 1497-1500
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11408, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 9:19:12 PM

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About the Author
  • Todd Ream
    Indiana Wesleyan University
    E-mail Author
    TODD C. REAM is Director of the Center for Student Support Services at Indiana Wesleyan University. His research interests include moral development and the writings of John Henry Newman. He has authored forthcoming articles in journals including Christian Higher Education, Christian Scholar’s Review, Educational Philosophy and Theory, and New Blackfriars.
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