American Higher Education: A History (2nd Ed.)

reviewed by Andrea Walton - April 09, 2007

coverTitle: American Higher Education: A History (2nd Ed.)
Author(s): Christopher J. Lucas
Publisher: Palgrave/MacMillan, New York
ISBN: 1403972893 , Pages: 416, Year: 2006
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Appearing in its second edition, Christopher Lucas’s American Higher Education: A History remains an accessible, straightforward, and useful narrative exploring the rise and development of colleges and universities in the United States as well as contemporary policy issues facing the academy. Lucas’s approach is traditional in both its source material and framework; drawing from well known institutional histories and biographies for “quotable quotes” and using the concepts of emergence, evolution, and maturation to craft the story of how higher education changed over time (p. xi). A distinguishing feature is the text’s exceptionally broad scope. The discussion begins with a view of efforts to institutionalize instruction in the ancient world (discussing, for example, the Examination text A used by the Babylonians, circa 1720-1625 B.C., and the tablet house introduced by Mesopotamians) and ends with a thoughtful consideration of current debates, such as the pressures of politicization and commercialization in higher education and volatile challenges to the heart of the modern academic enterprise, academic freedom.

The coverage of approximately 3,700 years of history in a mere 397 pages of narrative and references is at once the book’s tremendous strength for teaching purposes as well as a source of limitations and omissions that, as Lucas discusses in his preface, are no doubt inevitable in any concise synthetic reference work of this type. Because of its style and scope, American Higher Education is especially suited to the needs of introductory courses in the history of education or student affairs at the master’s degree level but, as Lucas suggests, can also be used effectively at the doctoral level in conjunction with a reading of more specialized articles and monographs reporting on original research or classic texts such as Frederick Rudolph’s The American College and University: A History (1990) and Curriculum (1976), John S. Brubacher and Willis Rudy’s Higher Education in Transition (1997), and John Thelin’s A History of American Higher Education (2004).

Much of the terrain of Lucas’s book will be familiar to any reader who has a basic knowledge of the history of colleges and universities in the United States. Perhaps the most provocative feature of Lucas’s American Higher Education, then, is where Lucas chooses to commence his narrative. Most historians of higher education in the United States begin with the founding of Harvard in 1636 and the subsequent rise of eight additional fledgling colleges in the colonies before the Revolutionary War. In contrast, Lucas adopts a far larger angle of vision by tracing the roots of higher education back to antiquity. Part One, running one hundred pages in length (approximately a third of the book), explores approaches to the higher learning in the ancient Near East, the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the Middle Ages, and the post-medieval years. Lucas’s decision to devote nearly a third of the first edition of American Higher Education to this history received a mixed reception, and no doubt his decision to retain this framework in the book’s second edition will similarly seem problematic to some readers. Others, however, will savor it.

Although I do not assign Part One as required reading in my graduate classes, there have always been students who have read Part One independently and enjoyed the material. For them, Part One drives home one of Lucas’s larger themes, namely that the pursuit of the higher learning and the provision of higher education have always been deeply influenced by the cultural and social context. Indeed, a variety of forces—some ushering forth change and others working to resist or counter it—have influenced the character and provision of higher education in any given time period or setting, whether in the ancient world or colonial New England. While using Part One to help situate the history of education in this country within a broader context and to demonstrate that “American colleges and universities are mainly an outgrowth of, and elaboration upon, European and English traditions,” Lucas carefully underscores for his readers at the outset that “there is no tacit assumption behind this brief work that American institutions represent a ‘culmination’ of what has gone before” (p. xii-xiii). Moving from the sweeping background material of Part One to the specifics of American higher education in Part Two, Lucas reminds us that while higher education in this country may have been the “offspring of European parentage,” it was “destined to evolve in a form uniquely its own” (p. 100).

Such reminders and caveats to guide readers in understanding the dynamics of the past can be used to generate classroom discussions about history and historical writing. Consider, for example, how Lucas discusses the medieval university. He begins with locating the university’s roots in the Cathedral Schools that emerged from changes within Europe in the early eleventh century. “As Western civilization underwent transformation, the Church’s formerly rigid antipathy toward pagan writings and secular learning softened. Its intellectual and spiritual hegemony by now firmly established, non-Christian culture no longer seemed to pose so large a threat to the Church authority” (p. 36). Lucas then addresses issues of power and governance, highlighting the difference between the nations at Paris, where teaching guilds held sway, and at Bologna where “real power was exercised exclusively and collectively by the students’ nations” (p. 46).

It is worth underscoring that Lucas frames his discussion of the medieval university with a cautionary note about the pitfalls of presentism: “Their real and undoubted contributions notwithstanding, it would be misleading to assume a simple linear descent from the universities of the Middle Ages to their contemporary counterparts” (p. 67). He underscores that the medieval university was primarily professional in nature and lacked both the campus and the philosophy of “liberal learning for its own sake” that many have come to associate with higher education (p. 68). Lucas elaborates on the transformations and moments of progress in the post-medieval period—seen, for example, in the rise of the “first modern university,” the University of Halle, in Germany, in 1694—yet shows how higher education was just as much characterized by “somnolence, “stagnation,” and “estrangement” (pp. 94, 93, 71). Part One ends with the observation that “the history of European higher learning from the close of the medieval era to the threshold of the modern age in the eighteenth century was fraught with irony, paradox, and ambiguity. In no sense is it possible to read the historical record as an account of incremental growth, expansion, and an evolving commitment to increased educational opportunities” (p. 100). He continues, “However much modern sensibilities might encourage some such interpretation of unbroken progress and development….what one finds instead over the passage of centuries are fluctuations and alternations, advances and declines, institutional openings and closings, periodic curricular reforms followed by intervals of degeneration and decay, expansions and constrictions” (p. 100).

Part Two, “American Higher Education: The Formative Period,” begins with an examination of the nine colonial colleges and the antebellum college in Chapter 4, followed by a closer view of the “evolving university” in Chapter 5. Since the 1970s, there has been increased interest in reconsidering some of the topics presented here. In particular, revisionist attention has shed new light on the 19th Century college, which traditional histories of higher education have too often caricaturized as a “retrograde” institution (to borrow Hofstadter and Metzger’s epithet (1995)) and left overshadowed by accounts of the university’s rise. In the past 15 years or so there has also been an efflorescence of literature on a broader range of educational institutions that were important in the nineteenth century landscape – notably among them, female academies and seminaries, normal schools, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Lucas’s second edition improves upon the earlier edition by providing a more thorough discussion of these diverse institutions and the students whose educational needs they met, but his endnotes do not necessarily introduce the reader to the most recent and important scholarly works in these areas. For this reason, a reading of Lucas’s text by graduate students in the history of education should be supplemented by more extensive reading in detailed and specialized articles and monographs.

Part Three, “American Higher Education: Maturation and Development” is valuable because most major histories of higher education—one readily thinks of works by Rudolph and Veysey—were written in the 1960s and, inevitably, were not able to appreciate fully the dynamics of the crucial changes then taking place in higher education. Lucas’s text thus provides an invaluable overview of higher education in the twentieth century, especially of crucial developments in the post-World War II decades. Lucas discusses the non-traditional student, the development of normal schools into state teachers colleges and, later, universities, the post-World War II expansion and diversification of higher education, and the outspoken critics of higher education. Indeed, a careful reading of the book provides a sound knowledge of the changing roles of the instructor, the student, donors, and the president.

Finally, Lucas’s Chapter 8 on the voices of critics and his “Epilogue” capture the major trends and pressures that higher education has felt in the decade since the book’s original publication in 1994. Whereas Chapter 8 provides readers with an up-to-date account of academic problems and issues—political correctness debates, careerism and the entrepreneurial university, and the problems with undergraduate education, to name a few—Lucas’s epilogue skillfully interweaves contemporary perceptions of problems and challenges in the academy and insights on connected issues drawn from the past. As he shows, our common perceptions of the past or ways we invoke the past do not always bear up under closer scrutiny. For example, despite our cherished belief in a rarified moment of student-professor exchanges was there ever, he asks, truly a sustained time when students were motivated primarily by “an intrinsic love of learning” (p. 342) and deeply inspired by their professors? In completing the book, the reader will likely be left with two major thoughts: first, that there was never a “golden age” of higher education and, second, that some of the ideas and issues that preoccupy educators and the public today—among them, for example, questions about engaging students, introducing new areas of study into the curriculum, debating the mission of higher education, or addressing a sense of decline—have also caught the attention of earlier generations. Lucas ends American Higher Education with an acknowledgment that even some of the higher education issues we most commonly associate with our own times—“unruly” students or the uncertain power or social status of the professor—have parallels in earlier eras. Lucas concludes by recognizing the persistent issues in higher education and underscoring the power of history to illuminate the present. He writes, “Perhaps, then, it is also true in higher education as it is in almost all things that, as the French have it, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose–the more things change, the more they remain the same” (p. 340).


Brubacher, J. S., & Rudy, W. (1997). Higher education in transition: A history of American colleges and universities 1636- 1976. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. (Original work published 1958)

Hofstadter, R., & Metzger, W. P. (1955). The development of academic freedom in the United States. NY: Columbia University Press.

Rudolph, F. (1990). The American college and university: A history (Reissue ed.). Athens: University of Georgia Press. (Original work published 1962)

Rudolph, F. (1977) Curriculum: A history of the American undergraduate course of study since 1636. NY: Jossey-Bass Wiley.

Thelin, J. (2004). A history of American higher education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 09, 2007 ID Number: 14148, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 8:37:40 PM

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