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A History of American Higher Education by John R. Thelin

John R. Thelin wrote a history textbook about the evolution of the American system of higher education in which he attempts to hit the major issues that policy makers, administrators, students, and parents faced during their own time period.  Clearly, because of the nature of a textbook in which one tries to cover a huge swath of history in less than 400 pages, a lot of details are going to be left out, but all in all, Thelin does a tremendous job of touching on most major issues throughout the 19th century and into the Progressive Era.  While writing specifically for non-historians, administrators and policy makers, Thelin plans to fill a gap between all of the historical scholarship that focuses on single aspects of college life or administration problems, by trying to cover the entire history of the American higher education system.  Thelin does this by focusing on understudied institutions, like community colleges, women’s colleges, and historically black campuses along with the great universities of America.

In chapter 3, Thelin begins to focus on the new types of education opportunities when he introduces the Morrill Act of 1862, which introduced land-grant institutions to most states.  The Morrill Act of 1862 helped expand the state college into the beginnings of the ideal university model, a collection of federated units, or a collection of colleges within a single university.  This chapter also focuses on where most students come from.  Most students live very near to the institution that they attend.  This localism harkens back to the idea of Elliott Gorn, in which boxers or athletes of any kind usually hailed from a small neighborhood which they ultimately represented.  This was true in the late 19th century, but the advent of scholarships and public interest in intercollegiate athletics would change this, much like the growing popularity of boxing removed the fighter from his neighborhood.

Chapter 4 discusses what it takes to make a great university in the 19th century.  The resounding answer is money.  Many philanthropists with very deep pockets privately endowed universities who agreed to take their name like Rice University, Stanford University, or Tulane University.  The next best answer was great leadership, this includes teachers, coaches, and administrators.  Architecture was an important way to gain attention in the public eyes, so donors would often endow entire buildings or more in order to help their university gain better students and prestige.  Thelin focuses on academic buildings, dorms, administrative offices, but Ingrassia uses Thelin work to show that stadiums were an important part of campus life and architecture in 19th century American colleges.

In chapter 5, Thelin discusses the beginnings of the rising student population of institutions of higher learning throughout the country.  The percentage of 18-22 year olds who attended college rose from about 2% in 1880 to nearly 50% by 1960.  Thelin attributes this rise mainly to the ever-growing middle class and the idea that “self-made men wanted their sons to have a shared campus experience that would position them to associate with young men from established, educated families.”(155)  He also uses this part of the book to discuss campus life among students, in which extra-curricular activities play a large role, whether it is participating or spectating at athletic events, wearing the special garb of the college, singing in the glee club, or enjoying fraternity life.


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