EWR 22 (2023), Nr. 4 (Oktober)

Ellen Schrecker
The Lost Promise
American Universities in the 1960s
Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2021
(616 S.; ISBN 978-0-226-20085-9; 35,00 USD)
The Lost Promise In “The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s”, Ellen Schrecker completes her trilogy about the history of higher education in the US, which has previously focused on the impact of McCarthyism on universities and the contemporary neoliberalization and decline of the US’ public universities [1]. In a similar manner, “The Lost Promise” strikes an elegiac tone, lamenting the failure of a generation of liberal and left-wing scholars, students, and activists to reshape American universities in a more egalitarian manner.

A work of social history that also focuses on individual actors within university communities, her book focuses on four topics: the expansion of universities before the 1960s (particularly the rise of the “multiversity”), how academics of various political stripes reacted to the Vietnam War, the university response to student unrest, and how the 1960s changed both administrative and disciplinary culture. Mainly focusing on universities which became epicenters of student unrest, such as Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin, and Cornell, Schrecker notes that there were many more aspects of the long 1960s which she could have included but chose not to due to space. These include more on the women’s movement, “pedagogical experiments,” and “details of the backlash” towards student activism (8). The lack of space paid to the last aspect is one of this otherwise admirable book’s biggest weaknesses. Additionally, because of its focus on universities most important for the student movement, “The Lost Promise” does not devote much attention to developments on more conservative campuses, particularly in the South. This book is best suited for specialists in educational history, those interested in the 1960s, or those interested in American cultural history. It could be used as a core text for a seminar on this period if paired with other resources. For example, non-specialists would need more background information on events like the Kent State Massacre, which Schrecker mentions occasionally but does not cover in detail. This is no comprehensive history of everything that happened on American campuses during the Sixties, but instead examines the key themes mentioned above.

Herself a student activist during this period, Schrecker peppers the text with anecdotes from her own experiences, which enrich the narrative – to this reviewer, it helped show that Schrecker is playing with open cards; that she was not cloaking her argument in faux neutrality and objectivity like the conservative scholars discussed throughout the book but most forcefully in its final chapter. Schrecker’s use of primary sources is always fascinating and, most importantly, also involves interviews with former students or university employees who lived through the events discussed here. Her use of oral history and personal anecdotes help make this history more tangible and helped illustrate some of the 1960s influence on historians like herself. When she discusses changes in disciplinary cultures, one key theme that emerges is a move away from ivory tower-style distanced scholarship and acknowledging one’s own positionality, which Schrecker has mastered here.

Schrecker’s discussion of how university administrators reacted to the sometimes-violent student protests on campuses serves as a good corrective to the often, at least in the humanities, self-styling of academics as being on the side of liberation, progress, and reform. She shows that university faculty, especially those with tenure, largely sided with administrators against what they saw as dangerous student radicalism. The book’s final chapter, which looks at the conservative backlash to higher education, was one of the most fascinating chapters, even if so much more could have been said. For example, major events like the 1970 Hard Hat Riot, in which New York City construction workers attacked student demonstrators, get short shrift, as well as the wider 1970 student strike—the largest student walkout in American history.

This well-researched and well-written book is a valuable contribution to educational history of this period. While not a comprehensive survey of everything that took place during the turbulent 1960s, it could easily form the core of a seminar on this era and serve as a springboard for further research. The most original insights and crowning achievement of this book is Schrecker’s use of interviews and memoirs of individuals who were both scholars and students during the 1960s. Many of these people are well-known historians, like Carl Schorske. Furthermore and most important for future research, Schrecker conducted 130 of these interviews herself (460). While the editors chose an informative bibliographical essay instead of a standard academic bibliography, the bibliographic essay can easily serve as a research guide for students – though it and the book both suffer from Schrecker’s failure to consult online sources (455). Schrecker manages to depict a complicated era in a nuanced manner while still managing to be a very enjoyable read.

But Schrecker’s study, like all studies, is not without some weak points. The book’s biggest flaw is its nostalgic narrative. Schrecker assumes that the American public had a positive view of higher education until 1960s student unrest supposedly paved the way for massive budget cuts and a decline in public support for higher education. But prior to World War II, most Americans saw higher education as a private good, not as a public good benefitting the entire country. The Republican and later, neoliberal project of dismantling public higher education has a longer history extending beyond the 1960s. Schrecker’s “No Ivory Tower” depicts an atmosphere of suspicion towards academics and universities during the 1950s. Other scholars have noted earlier periods of public skepticism or ridicule of higher education, for example Matthew Sutton’s “American Apocalypse”, which discusses the early twentieth-century conservative alliance with evangelicals against what they saw as elitist academics, whether that meant proponents of teaching evolution in the 1920s or FDR’s “brain trust” of urban, largely Jewish academics in the 1930s [2]. Additionally, the GI Bill was the first major attempt to broaden access to public universities and cannot be imagined without the New Deal mindset shaped by Roosevelt’s broadly social democratic efforts at Depression-era relief. And opposition to public spending on universities also has a history dating back to prior to the 1960s. The conservative fear of public spending and the neoliberal obsession with treating public services as a business both have their intellectual and political origins in the age of Herbert Hoover [3]. So Schrecker’s rather idealistic portrayal of the post-1960s decline as the end of a golden age can also be seen, in a cynical sense, as simply a return to normalcy.

[1] See Schrecker, E. W. (1988). No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities. Oxford University Press and Schrecker, E. W. (2021). The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University. The New Press.
[2] See Sutton, M. A. (2014). American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism. Harvard University Press.
[3] See Rauchway E. (2018). Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal. Basic Books.
Nicholas K. Johnson (MĂĽnster)
Zur Zitierweise der Rezension:
Nicholas K. Johnson: Rezension von: Schrecker, Ellen: The Lost Promise, American Universities in the 1960s. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2021. In: EWR 22 (2023), Nr. 4 (Veröffentlicht am 20.10.2023), URL: http://www.klinkhardt.de/ewr/978022620085.html