Integrating Disciplinary Perspectives into Higher Education Research; the Example of History

By Eisenmann, Linda | Journal of Higher Education, January-February 2004 | Go to article overview

Integrating Disciplinary Perspectives into Higher Education Research; the Example of History


Eisenmann, Linda, Journal of Higher Education


Few would deny that higher education has matured as a field of study: dozens of higher education graduate programs now thrive, scholarly organizations and journals abound with enthusiastic contributors, and new scholars consider themselves higher education specialists. The Journal of Higher Education has entered an eighth decade of publishing, and the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) just celebrated a twenty-fifth anniversary as the most prominent research group devoted to postsecondary educational concerns.

Yet, higher education represents a fairly recent area for research, a field that has been built through the contributions of previously established disciplines. In recognition of this history, editor John C. Smart solicited a series of articles for the annual Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research which offer autobiographies of several "pioneers" of higher education research. In highlighting the work of Robert Pace (1998), W. J. McKeachie (1999), Burton Clark (2000), and Robert Berdahl (2001), Smart cites these "distinguished scholars from other disciplines whose cumulative contributions are seminal to the development of higher education research literature" (1998, p. 1). His contention--supported by the scholars' accounts--is that higher education coalesced into a research field when such psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists, joined by economists, historians, philosophers, and others, applied modes of inquiry from their home disciplines to postsecondary education.

This mix of methodological and epistemological contributions raises two questions for higher education research. First, as the field matures, does it continue to value, welcome, and integrate the perspectives offered by the disciplines? Some are doubtful. A recent survey of ASHE members (Aleman, 2002) reveals some disenchantment with higher education scholars' seeming penchant for studying increasingly smaller parts of collegiate issues without wider contextual analysis. This concern leads to the second methodological question: how can discipline-based scholars continue to use higher education to explore vital questions, questions that both advance their disciplines and extend our understanding of higher education?

This article uses the discipline of history to explore these questions. While not a teeming group, historians of higher education have employed their disciplinary lens to advance several lines of significant postsecondary inquiry (for example, issues of access, social mobility, professionalism, gender, and regionalism). This article first traces historians' early contributions to higher education, noting that most considered themselves scholars of history who happened to find higher education a fruitful spot for their investigations. Over time, a cadre of educational historians developed, scholars who focus intentionally on higher education; the next section explores their growing contributions. But this latter group faces its own methodological challenge: how to balance between generating research that is guided by the insights and problems of history versus allowing contemporary educational puzzles about students, leadership, organization, or markets to determine their research agenda. Recognizing this as a difficult choice for any disciplinary scholar, this article encourages historians to consider the value of the second approach, suggesting that it offers strong potential for strengthening higher education research.

Early Historical Contributions to Higher Education Research

Historian John Thelin, whose recent presidency of ASHE marks him as a scholar sensitive to the postsecondary present, explored the origins of historical scholarship on higher education in a 1985 review. He observed that most early contributors were historians first and higher education specialists only incidentally. Yet, as the field developed, Thelin worried that later scholars too frequently ignored the contemporary implications of their analyses. …

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