What was it like to attend college in the United States during the 1960s? John R. Thelin's new book, Going to College in the Sixties, attempts to answer that question. According to Thelin, colleges and universities, for the most part, did not experience as much antiwar, pro–civil rights student protests as is commonly believed. Most colleges were also not hotbeds for New Left activism or hippie culture. Most students also didn't experiment with drugs or follow Timothy Leary's call to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” In fact, Thelin argues that college students in the 1960s, like their administrators, were fairly conservative, and he encourages the reader to understand that “publicity over campus unrest in the 1960s often subjected higher education to a case of mistaken identity” (p. 3). According to Thelin, popular culture has largely judged the rule of a typical collegiate experience in the 1960s by the exception of student activism. His point is well taken.
In order to cover an entire decade of student experience, Thelin impressively draws upon oral histories, national and local newspapers, campus publications, student memoirs, and institutional archives. Rather than organizing the narrative chronologically, each chapter is devoted to a segment of the student experience or a component of higher education's structure. For example, chapter five examines what students did outside of the classroom once they arrived on campus. Chapter six describes the effect that television broadcasts, big-time football bowl games, and student boosterism had on the growth of college athletics programs.
The other chapters are more explanatory than revealing. Chapter one is an introduction to Thelin's thesis and a short historiographical analysis of the 1960s in higher education. Here, the author introduces his critique of the romanticization of certain aspects of student life in higher education at the expense of what he considers to be equally important ways to consider the decade in higher education. Most notable is the great growth in enrollment and economic investment, or what Clark Kerr called the “great transformation” of higher education from elite to mass and almost universal access (p. 13). Chapter two is primarily concerned with explaining how the present admissions practices began in the 1960s. Thelin rhetorically asks, “What was it like to apply to college in an earlier era?” The answer? Applying to college in the 1960s wasn't very different from applying to college in the present because most institutions implemented the selective admissions standards still in use today. In sum, more students attended high school than ever before, colleges caught on to this and began recruiting potential new students while also determining how to universally evaluate students’ academic prowess (enter the ACT and SAT), and parents began pushing college prep on their children. Both chapters are not so much concerned with what was different but on telling the reader how little has changed.
The best part of Going to College in the Sixties is Thelin's focus on the development of the regional campus system in chapter three. Several elements of his argument are worth noting. First, Thelin modifies the common view of the 1960s as a period of growth, optimism, and expanded access to higher education by emphasizing the goal of university planners and administrators to take advantage of the expanded university system for financial purposes. These master planners, combined with unprecedented help from the federal government, are considered ground zero for what became known as the knowledge industry. According to Thelin, the institutions that found a way to land federal research contracts automatically gained financial stability and national attention. A federal grant university became known for its “highly skilled personnel, substantial laboratories and research facilities, and a track record derived from industrial contracts, World War II projects, and positioning in specific, high-profile fields” (p. 63). Although American higher education may have expanded to handle growing enrollments, not all institutions were created equally. The power and scope of federal involvement in American higher education systematically dismantled any pretense of a level playing field. Institutions unable to land federal funding were left to whatever creative devices they could find to compete for students, research grants, and prestige.
While a promising topic, written by a founding father of the history of higher education, Thelin's account has a few peculiarities. One problem is not Thelin's argument per se but how he makes it. In a book that is presented as being largely about the student experience of going to college in one of American higher education's most infamous decades, Thelin instead spends most of his time examining the structures, logistics, and ideas that characterized colleges as institutions. The students’ voices are largely silent. While Thelin's argument is that the 1960s were not all about radicalism, he often contradicts himself, especially in chapter four and in the conclusion, which refers to colleges of the mid-1970s being “exhausted” by student demonstrations (p. 158). Perhaps the nation was exhausted from the media's coverage of particular protests that came to dominate popular memories of higher education in the 1960s, but it is a stretch to say that all colleges were exhausted. A similar problem is the striking cover photograph, which shows seemingly typical students in shirtsleeves, coats, and ties holding protest signs. The photo might have been used ironically, but it does a more explicit job of epitomizing the lack of clarity in Thelin's argument.
In addition, while Thelin promises a national view, the book reads more like a reconstruction of the world that Thelin himself experienced during his years at the University of California at Berkeley. That's not necessarily a negative if Thelin had initially set out to write a book about students’ academic experience with California's system of higher education. But the American college student academic experience is far more varied and diverse than that. For example, not all campuses experienced the kind of overcrowding that instigated much of the Berkeley student activism. Indeed, at small liberal arts colleges, historically black colleges, and the newly opened community and regional college campuses, such growth was hardly an issue, particularly near the end of the decade, in spite of the famous baby boom enrollment surge.
Going to College in the Sixties thus offers some unique insights and breaks ground in the proposal that the decade was not all that it has been made out to be. We look forward in seeing how future scholars pick up the pieces of this narrative.