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  • On Higher Education: Selected Writings, 1956–2006
  • Marybeth Gasman
On Higher Education: Selected Writings, 1956–2006. Burton R. Clark. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, 600 pages, $25.00 (softcover)

When I was in graduate school at Indiana University, John Thelin, my professor, assigned [End Page 469] Burton Clark’s The Distinctive College: Antioch, Reed, and Swarthmore in one of his classes. What I loved about this book was the beautiful writing, the ability of the author to tell a rich story, and how much I learned about these three institutions and small liberal arts colleges in general. As I read Clark’s carefully constructed case studies, I was able to feel the ethos of the campuses. Few higher education researchers have the ability to write in this vivid way. And so, this was my introduction to Burton Clark. Since that time, I have read countless articles written by the stalwart higher education scholar.

With the publication of On Higher Education, readers can enjoy and learn from an anthology of Clark’s writings. The collection offers selected pieces from across Clark’s areas of expertise. The essays span over fifty years and offer the reader a walk through the modern development of higher education. In the collection are classics that focus on organizational saga (“a collective understanding of unique accomplishment in a formally established group”) or the Clark-Trow typology of student cultures (the vocational, collegiate, academic, and nonconformist student). These concepts continue to be used by students and scholars to understand both institutional and student culture. Although Clark’s ideas have been challenged, twisted, and pulled apart by subsequent scholars, they have laid the foundation for a good deal of research in the field of higher education.

One, particularly timely, section of the anthology is focused on Clark’s work on internationalism and higher education. The prolific author was thinking globally before many of his peers or our nation as a whole, encouraging scholars and practitioners to look to other nations for expertise, examples, and potential pitfalls. On Higher Education includes chapters that help us steer clear of the failures of other nations (Italy: A Case Study of System Failure) and others that challenge us to think about our values in terms of higher education in comparison to other industrialized nations (Coping with Conflicting Values: An International View) and still others that push us to think about the insular nature of our higher education system (The Insulated Americans: Five Lessons from Abroad). The chapters are prescient in their understanding and scope and they continue to have relevance today—in fact, they may have more relevance today than when Clark originally penned them.

Always seeming to capture coming trends, Clark includes some of his seminal work on entrepreneurial universities in the anthology (Delineating the Character of the Entrepreneurial University and Genetic Entrepreneurialism among American Universities). Given how far institutions of higher education have come in terms of their pursuit of the entrepreneurial spirit, these chapters are particularly important for students and scholars studying higher education today. Clark explains that institutions need to be entrepreneurial, but also provides ample caution for the reader.

Sprinkled throughout the book are chapters on the academic profession, the development of the sociology of higher education and the merits of the case study method. Although these chapters don’t necessarily fit with the rest of the essays in the book, they are nonetheless important, useful, and interesting to readers. In fact, my favorite essay in the book, and one that I think is most useful to young scholars fetishizing about methods, is The Advantages of Case Study. In this chapter, Clark draws from key thinkers in the field of anthropology to sing the merits of case study and writing to inform practice. For example, citing Clifford Gertz, he says, “He saw the reality of actual practice as more fundamental than either discourse or theory. The first lesson learned from [End Page 470] Geertz is to get close to reality by anchoring research in the context being studied” (p. 550). What a wonderful lesson for all educational researchers to learn; keep research simple, clear, and straightforward and it will appeal to practitioners and scholars alike...


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pp. 469-471
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