John Thelin, Approaching Retirement, Shares Insight on the Past and Future of Higher EducationHistorians in the News
tags: higher education, education history
John R. Thelin, one of the best-known historians of American higher education, likes to pay attention to the detailed human stories that have happened over decades on college campuses. It’s a way, he says, to not only counter some of the blander official narratives promulgated by college presidents and others, but also to find a connection to major events in American history, reflected in the lives of students and other groups on campus.
Thelin will give his last academic lecture, a Zoom presentation scheduled for Thursday evening. A university research professor in higher education and public policy at the University of Kentucky, Thelin is one of the best-known scholars of colleges and universities. He is the author of Going to College in the Sixties, Essential Documents in the History of American Higher Education and A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press), now in its third edition, a book that shows that colleges have long struggled with the financial and cultural pressures commonly discussed today.
But for Thelin, the most compelling aspects of that history lie in the people on campus, and how campus life interacted with broader historical events off-campus. Thelin promises that his last lecture will be full of such stories: How the University of Chicago, for example, mothballed its football stadium after losing to Harvard, then later used the abandoned locker rooms as a secret location for the Manhattan Project. Or how female professors at the University of California at Berkeley climbed through a bathroom window to get into the all-male faculty club and participate in a faculty meeting. Or how Jesse Owens became a hero for representing the United States at 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, but the track star could not live on campus at Ohio State University, where he was a student.
Thelin is calling his last lecture “Academic Procession,” and he says it will combine his interest in college campuses and architecture with accounts of how professors, students, university presidents, and others created liveliness, culture, and lasting traditions at these iconic places, which also influenced society as a whole.
“The American campus is pretty spectacular,” Thelin says, “but it’s really just a stage set. Whatever great buildings and designs you have, until you have a script and cast, it’s inanimate.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you pursue the history of higher education as a field of study?
I was a European-history major at Brown University, with a strong interest in the late Middle Ages, but I would gravitate toward topics about colleges and universities. I had a really good medieval-history professor who said, “Look, you don’t have the languages to go on to be a professor of medieval history, so for graduate school you should shift toward American history.” At Berkeley, where I got a master’s and doctorate, there was this concentration of higher-education scholars from a variety of fields, including a sociologist, Martin Trow, who was very influential. I got to work at a research center that was down the hall from Clark Kerr and his Carnegie Commission on Higher Education.
Just by chance, this convergence of scholars — economists, sociologists, historians, political scientists that were focusing on higher education — it was like being in a candy store. And what I liked about it is that I could always read in a variety of disciplines, going across boundaries, but always coming back to a historical base.
It’s interesting that you say you were attracted to the study of higher education because it has so many facets to it, when a common criticism of scholarship in higher ed is that it is so siloed.
To me, many of the really important issues in American history, in American society, at some point converge into higher ed. So that if you talk about upward mobility, at some point, it’s going to have some connection or disconnection with higher education.
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