Colleges and universities are among the most cherished institutions in American society -- and also among the most controversial. Yet affirmative action and skyrocketing tuition are only the most recent dissonant issues to emerge. Recounting the many crises and triumphs in the long history of American higher education, historian John Thelin provides welcome perspective on this influential aspect of American life. In A History of American Higher Education, Thelin offers a wide-ranging and engaging account of the origins and evolution of America's public and private colleges and universities, emphasizing the notion of saga -- the proposition that institutions are heirs to numerous historical strands and numerous attempts to address such volatile topics as institutional cost and effectiveness, admissions and access, and the character of the curriculum. Thelin draws on both official institutional histories and the informal memories that constitute legends and lore to offer a fresh interpretation of an institutional past that reaches back to the colonial era and encompasses both well-known colleges and universities and such understudied institutions as community, women's, and historically black colleges, proprietary schools, and freestanding professional colleges. Thelin's lively history has particular relevance for a society still struggling to determine what constitutes a legitimate field of study, reminding readers that Harvard once used its medical school as a safe place to admit the sons of wealthy alumni who could not pass the undergraduate college admissions examination and that the University of Pennsylvania once considered the study of history, government, and economics unworthy of addition to the liberal arts curriculum. Thelin also addresses the role of local, state, and federal governments in colleges and universities, as well as the influence of private foundations and other organizations. And through imaginative interpretation of films, novels, and popular magazines, he illuminates the convoluted relationship between higher education and American culture. For anyone attempting to understand America's colleges and universities, A History of American Higher Education offers a much-needed challenge to conventional wisdom about how these institutions developed and functioned in the past.
John R. Thelin is University Research Professor and a member of the Educational Policy Studies Department at the University of Kentucky. His many books include Games Colleges Play: Scandal and Reform in Intercollegiate Athletics, also available from Johns Hopkins.