- A KU doctoral student in American studies has received a
fellowship from the Eisenhower World Affairs Institute in Washington,
D.C., to research a cultural history of the U.S. interstate highway
John Cotten Seiler of Louisville, Ky., is one of four national
Dwight Eisenhower/Clifford Roberts graduate fellows for the 2000-01
academic year. The fellowship provides $7,500. Seiler's dissertation
is titled "Independence, Autonomy and Mobility: The Cultural
Origins of the Interstate Highway System."
"A lot has been written on the politics of producing the
interstate highway system and on its cultural effects, such as
the destruction of the small towns, suburbanization and standardization,"
Seiler said. "But little work exists discussing its original
connection to deeply rooted American values."
Seiler's research focuses on the cultural concepts of the 1950s
that made the national interstate system proposed by President
Dwight D. Eisenhower successful. Impressed with the ability of
German autobahns to carry troops during World War II, Eisenhower
envisioned a U.S. system to improve military security.
Seiler argues that the highways also celebrated and enhanced
mobility and individual autonomy, values that distinguished American
society from those of its Cold War enemies. "I'm looking
at how the system was a product of a Cold War environment of
the 1950s," Seiler said.
Independence and individualism are prominent values in America
- appealing to both conservatives and liberals, Seiler said.
Interstate highways permitted freedom to travel anywhere in the
United States despite limited access to towns along the way,
"People are now talking about the information superhighway
using a lot of the same rhetoric as they did for the interstate
system," Seiler said. Phrases such as "You can go anywhere
you want to go" or "It provides a radical new kind
of freedom to switch jobs" were used in the 1950s about
Seiler's dissertation director is Barry Shank, KU associate professor
of American studies, who is teaching this year at Ohio State
"The key question he is asking is: 'Why did this plan to
link the nation by four-lane divided highways make immediate
sense to everyone?'" Shank said.
Linking the nation with an interstate highway system was a huge
federal project. Before the 1950s, federal works projects of
this size, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, had considerable
opposition, Shank said.
Through his research Seiler should "learn a lot about the
way the nation thought and what defined the nation," Shank
In April, Seiler presented a paper titled "Limited Access:
Middlebrow Culture, the Cold War and the Interstate Highway System"
to the American Culture Association conference in New Orleans.
Seiler earned a bachelor's degree in English and fiction writing
from Northwestern University in Chicago and a master's degree
in American studies from KU.
Seiler also received a Carlin Graduate Teaching Assistant award
and a KU Graduate School Dissertation Fellowship, both in May
2000. He taught in KU's Humanities and Western Civilization Program
last year and will teach a course in sociology in spring 2001.