My way on the highway

Fellowship winner studies how interstate system facilitates freedom

by Mary Jane Dunlap

 

Photo by Kelly Heese/University Relations
John Cotten Seiler is one of four national recipients of Dwight Eisenhower/Clifford Roberts graduate fellowships. Seiler, a KU doctoral student in American studies, will use the yearlong fellowship to continue his research of the U.S. interstate highway system.

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 system.

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, Seiler said.

"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 the interstates.

Seiler's dissertation director is Barry Shank, KU associate professor of American studies, who is teaching this year at Ohio State University.

"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 said.

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.

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September 8, 2000
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