A History of American Higher Education

A History of American Higher Education

Rhatigan, James J

A History of American Higher Education John R. Thelin Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004, 432 pages, $19.95 (softcover)

A History of American Higher Education by John R. Thelin is destined to be the standard work in this area for years to come. There are three reasons why.

First, readers will discover a superb historian who knows how to engage colleagues who are non-historians. Thelin is a faculty member in the Educational Policy Studies Department at the University of Kentucky. He has demonstrated a broad interest in higher education topics beyond this book, including a critical review of the current status of intercollegiate sports and companion issues of interest to student affairs administrators. In fact, he says that for him, “the discussion of timely higher education topics starts – not stops – with history.”

This book is not just a reference work one will riffle through looking for a bit of data. A reader may start out that way, but will continue with the book because of the effective way material is presented. Thelin is an energetic writer, providing commentary beyond a reader’s expectations, often in the form of stories. In his view, stories enrich scholarship. He argues that people have stories to tell, and often they are powerful and relevant to what we need to know. The ability to appreciate history through “legends, lore and heroic events” is a part of a never-ending saga from his perspective, contributions at the center of scholarship rather than mere decoration.

A second reason this book is valuable is that it takes the reader to the present day. For many people in student affairs, Frederick Rudolph has been the historian of preference. Rudolph understands student affairs, and the profession has appreciated his perspective. But his higher education history was published in 1962 and of course the past forty years have been some of the most dynamic and significant in the nation’s history. A history that includes these years is welcome and Thelin gives them the attention they deserve.

Finally, Thelin provides the reader an outstanding and thorough historiography of higher education in the United States, in an “Essay on Sources.” Our colleagues in professional preparation programs, both at the masters and doctoral levels, will soon be sending their students to this essay. It will introduce graduate students (and others) to the world of historical scholarship, including primary materials, journals, institutional histories, state and federal documents, biographies, anthologies, public policy papers, educational statistics and many other sources found in places where historians ordinarily look. Thelin, though, goes far beyond these sources. He will offer students substantial material in architecture, philanthropy, anthropology, sociology, and psychology as important areas to be explored if we are to understand the history of higher education in the United States.

A History of American Higher Education will be a source of excellent information for many years.

Reviewed by James J. Rhatigan, Wichita State University

Copyright American College Personnel Association Jan/Feb 2006

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