A Bit of What I Have Been Writing in Place of this Blog

Thelin Precis part 1

It is likely that no institution(s), other than government, has had a greater and deeper effect on the citizens of the United States than colleges and Universities. Perhaps it is because these organizations and institutions proudly predate our current government. In his book A History of American Higher Education, John R. Thelin attempts to chronicle how these institutions, or higher education as an industry, grew in prominence, and evolved in concept and practice through time. This cross cut of time, or “horizontal history” as he calls it, is intended to give the reader a broader and deeper understanding of any given institution’s singular history, while illustrating its place and relevance in the bigger picture or context of any given period. He proposes to challenge the traditional ideas of the American college narrative by presenting facts and figures from multiple sources on a single subject, as well as stories and examples from the lives of individual players, all with the hope that challenged notions and expanded visions will inspire increased interest and investigation. Perhaps his endeavor can be deemed a success in that the spanning overview does bring up more questions than it offers answers.

One prevailing theme, that begs additional questioning is the idea that college enrolment, as well as course offerings, were a response to market forces. Thelin presents his history in chronological chunks, or eras, telling of how the concepts and philosophies changed over time, and then presents the affiliated enrolment numbers, and even budgets, right alongside, to better illustrate the potential reasons or results of evolving philosophies. This method of reporting is maintained from the founding of institutions, through transitional periods, usually the turning of  centuries or thrashings of war, and everyone, the colleges and the country, adjust together.

For example, the idea is forwarded that colonial colleges were primarily tools of socialization for the sons of the gentry, instructing them in the classics, a practice which possessed no practical value other than giving these young men the time and opportunity to broaden their horizons and shoulders with others of their own class. To help illustrate his point that academics were not the primary purpose of colleges, Thelin points out the lack of set admission standards, the general lack of standardized primary education institutions, and, in my opinion the most poignant point, the insight that no profession at the time required a degree. From this idea Thelin progresses to the expansion of colleges beyond the elite Northeast, into state funded schools, and the geographical spread into the South and Midwest. As all this happens, various schools shift ideas and new structures evolve (college vs. university), and as any good in the market, prices and demands of education shift in tune. I am sure Thelin’s facts are accurate, but the portrait painted is incomplete.

If a Bachelor of Arts, or even science, had no power in the market at large, then its value must come from somewhere else. That somewhere else is never identified. Higher education is treated as if it is its own marketplace, only being affected by the biggest and strongest outside forces (wars). For instance there is attention given to the rise of disciplines such as business and engineering into curriculums, while no real attention is given as to why. We are still told that as these disciplines rose, one still had no need of a degree to work professionally in those fields, and by following the numbers we can still see that only an elite few enrolled in college; why then the rise of those fields as areas of academic study? What was the value? If a degree in a practical field, had no practical value in that field, then why was it offered? It is impossible to know from the facts presented. Answers would require looking at context outside the text.

Also left untreated in the text is the market benefit of churches sponsoring schools. Thelin states that while Harvard may have begun with the idea, no matter how insincere, of schooling and preparing candidates for the ministry, as time progressed fewer and fewer graduate became ministers. This pattern of non ministering graduates was well in place when other denominations and locations began founding schools. Not only is the value of a degree for the degree holder left unstated, but the value to the founding denomination is left unstated as well. This same question could be asked of women seeking higher education or the institutions educating them. It would seem that the answers pertaining to value not only lay outside the text, but outside the cloistered college walls as well.

As Thelin wends his way towards the latter half of the 20th century, he continues his pattern of mapping out the education industry’s trajectory juxtaposed against an unstated opposition. We do not know what other forces are at play in the culture at large or what truly motivated the players chronicled. We simply have a chronicling of various schools, their evolution through time, their shifts in structure, and their individual spaces in the higher education picture. It is true the author makes no claim that the book is all encompassing, or that it stands as the definitive word on the subject. The book does however make the explicit claim that it intends to challenge traditionally held notions of history, though it does not state what those notions are, and forwards the hope that the reader will be inspired to investigate further. In this last case the book is a success. In A History of American Higher Education, one will find plenty of Harvard, Yale, and even Transylvania, but not quite enough America.

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