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A History of American Higher Education by John R. Thelin

Published in April 2019 (third edition)

Why is most thinking about higher education's future mostly mediocre?

Lots of reasons. Uncritical acceptance of applying (mostly discredited) business theories to academia. (Hello, disruptive innovation.) An inability to see beyond one's privileges. Anchoring on the belief that nothing ever changes in higher education. An unshakable faith that the market is either the answer to all of higher education's challenges or the root of all its problems.

However, the most profound cause of middling thinking about the future (or futures) of higher education is too little knowledge about higher education's past. Knowing the contours and causes of prior changes in academia is likely necessary, if not sufficient, for saying smart things about what will come next.

This brings us to Thelin's A History of American Higher Education. The third edition came out in 2019, bringing the story more or less up to the present. (Before COVID maybe changed everything).

Thelin should probably be required reading for anyone who wants to offer any utterance, no matter how small, about where higher ed might be going. Would it be unrealistic to ask Educause, UPCEA, OLI, ASU+GSV, WCET, ACE, AAC&U, FETC, ELI, AAU, CHEA, NAICU, AAUP and all the rest to send copies of A History American Higher Education to all their members?

Reading the Thelin book (as it always seems to be called), I was struck by a couple of things. First, it is interesting to me (as someone who works at a center for teaching and learning) how little a role teaching and learning plays in this history of higher education. Zimmerman's The Amateur Hour is an essential companion to Thelin.

Online education's growth gets some space in Thelin's history, but not all that much. There is some stuff on the role that for-profits played in the online learning story, and nonprofit distance learning and MOOCs make an appearance in the newest chapter on the 2010-2018 period. But Thelin covers very little about the impact of the development of CTLs, or the role that nonfaculty educators play in the instructional enterprise.

Nor does the history of educational technologies -- academic or administrative -- figure much into A History of American Higher Education. A historical and holistic account of the introduction and impact of technologies into the university has not been written yet (to my knowledge), a volume that may also make an attractive companion (and perhaps balance) to Thelin.

Despite what I see as shortcomings (not enough about teaching and learning, not enough about online education and nonfaculty educators, not enough about technology), it is undeniable that A History of American Higher Education represents a singular contribution. Thelin has given us a deeply researched and highly readable single-volume account of U.S. higher education, from 1636 (the year of Harvard's founding) to (almost) today.

The collective time spent on almost any higher ed conference, gathering or convening about the future of higher education would probably be better spent by everyone reading Thelin. However, the reality is that the communities of those who study higher ed's past and those who talk about higher ed's future seldom seem to converge. Why is this?

Part of the reason may be a mismatch between academic disciplines and professional organizations. Academics tend not to go to higher ed professional meetings, and higher ed professionals (nonfaculty) don't usually attend academic conferences on the history of higher education. Perhaps we should swap conferences?

There is so much to learn, so much to know, about the history of higher education. The task is daunting. A History of American Higher Education is the best place to start.

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