Life of the Mind

Going To College In The Sixties

John R. Thelin. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. 224 pp. $34.95.

By D.T. Siebert

John R. Thelin’s (ΦBK, Brown University) subject is that of his title: Going to College in the Sixties. Thelin has written several studies of higher education in America, and this book zeros in on perhaps the most eventful and transformational single decade of all—the 1960s.    

One highly influential figure in Thelen’s study is the redoubtable Clark C. Kerr, the 1960s president of the vast and growing University of California system of higher education. Kerr became well-known as the decade’s guru of college administration and its essential role in designing a well-functioning university or “multiversity,” to use Kerr’s coinage. His influential book The Uses of the University (1963) is relevant even today, especially in its 2002 revision. Kerr’s concern with organization and utility is evident in the beginning words of his title—“The Uses of the . . . .”  A century earlier John Cardinal Newman had written a series of lectures called The Idea of a University. The words “uses” versus “idea,” and even “the” versus “a,” hint at the difference between the two conceptions. The word “idea” itself—reminiscent perhaps of Platonism—suggests a utopian college devoted to teaching the old verities—all in the service of preserving “civilization.” Kerr’s “uses” anticipates the justification of universities today. They are gateways to a remunerative career, on the one hand; and, on the other, by their research, they serve as an indispensable source of progress—principally material or utilitarian progress, of course.

There was almost an overnight change in the university of the early and that of the late 1960s. The foremost cause was student radicalization, with the Vietnam War being the catalyst. Politically passive students of the earlier 60s often became, in the late 60s, agitating war protesters who reviled the industrial-military-complex that seemed to promote the war. Thelen’s book jacket features a 1966 photograph of a huge crowd of students at Berkeley. The students are almost all white and male, apparently upper-middle-class, preppily dressed, with a few men even in neckties. But they are gathered there to protest the Viet Nam War. Professor Thelen was a Berkeley undergrad at the time and could himself have been among this apparently peaceful rally. It was not long before protests at campuses all over the country turned raucous and violent.

The degree to which colleges and universities have changed since the 1960s is astounding. Then, the student body was largely white. Women were present in most of them, to be sure, but often subject to dorm curfews and sign-ins that men were exempt from. A number of institutions didn’t even accept women as undergraduates, like some of the Ivies and the University of Virginia, which began admitting undergraduate women in 1974. Other than on traditional African-American campuses, black students were scarcely to be seen—particularly on Southern campuses. I was an undergrad at the University of Oklahoma in the early 60s, and at the turn of the decade, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, and I remember noticing very few, if any, black students on either campus. In a recent New Yorker, Professor Steven Greenblatt, a prominent Shakespeare scholar, revealed how an administrator at Yale, where Greenblatt was a freshman in the 60s, showed him scarcely veiled contempt because of his apparently “Jewish” name. Greenblatt, at that time of course, was prudent enough to ignore the insult.

How different the typical university of today is from the one described above. Even entire divisions are now devoted to Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, and to other “identities,” like Jewish Studies. In English departments, “dead white male” authors rapidly have become moribund in the other sense—in their centrality in the canon of literature. Today it is quite possible to graduate as an English major with little knowledge of Shakespeare or other major white male writers of the past.  

Among many interesting topics, Thelen’s account of collegiate athletics in the 1960s is revealing. Sports in that ancient time was far different from what it has gradually become. The only really major sport was football, and in those days the head coach was also often the athletic director, well-paid but hardly as extravagantly as he would be today. Basketball had fans, but the sport was not as prominent or well-funded as football was. Most other sports consisted of club teams, with one coach covering several different sports, or even alumni or faculty serving as volunteer coaches. Sports for women players attracted little interest—hardly the attention that even women’s beach volleyball does today.

What a difference a few decades make. Formerly many people were outraged that football coaches’ salaries could match that of the university president or state governor. How quaint and amusing is that complaint today. In the five largest NCAA conferences, head football coaches often make about as much as the CEO of a big company, with several top-paid coaches making about ten-million dollars a year. Nice work if you can get it. Thelen tells an anecdote about Darell Royal, the head football coach of the University of Texas from 1957-76. A booster came up to Royal after a big win: “Why, you could be governor!” To which the coach allegedly replied, “Why would I want to do that? I would take a loss of pay and prestige.” Today his losses in both would be much greater, indeed astronomically greater in terms of pay.

But what about the value and quality of a college education, then versus today? Colleges and universities, as we have seen, have undergone a profound transformation during the last half-century in almost every respect—indeed just as American society at large has as well. But are these changes completely for the good? In 1961, John W. Gardner, President of the Ford Foundation, had asked a crucial question: “How can [college education] be equal and excellent too?” This is Thelen’s concluding response:

The answer is, “Perhaps, but not quite.” Looking back to 1960, this response today is troubling and disappointing. Colleges and universities have overall expanded access. The gains, however, are skewed so that the net result includes severe imbalances. . . .  [T]he unexpected development since 1960 is that higher education expands educational opportunity yet increases inequality. . . . Today, more than half a century later, . . . the United States has yet to achieve the goals or fulfilled the hopes that were indelibly associated with the initiatives and optimism . . . of the early 1960s.

Many might also argue that there has been a decline in educational rigor and standards, as students have become consumers who must be satisfied with their expensive collegiate product, and who are thereby able to shape curricula and even indicate how pleased they were with their courses, thereby affecting their professors’ tenure, promotion, and salary.

In any case, Thelen’s study is not intended for every reader, but for those interested in the American college scene during the past half century, the book is essential reading.


D.T. Siebert (ΦBK, University of Oklahoma) is Distinguished Professor of English Literature  Emeritus at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. Recent publications include Mortality’s Muse: The Fine Art of Dying (Delaware, 2013) and the chapter “Hume’s History of England” in the Oxford Handbook of Hume (Oxford, 2016).


(Posted on 11/7/2019 )