No major city in this country concedes that its major hospital is a pest-house, or that its museums display junk, or that its symphony orchestra squeaks. Nor are cities satisfied with inadequate schools. In medicine, the arts and music, politics and government, and primary and secondary education, there is good but no “best.” Yet we take for granted that, in higher education, there really is a “best,” which can be measured by polling college presidents and deans. That conception yields the fiction that our elite universities are national ones, whereas the undergraduate programs of our state and municipal universities are second class. But American life is lived at home, in the cities, and in the states. We are a nation of regions, a people of localities; we have no Paris or London to set the standard.
When we conceive higher education at the undergraduate level to be national, we contradict our character as a nation. In Europe, even with the various ministries of culture and national cultural centers, higher education is local. Providing dormitories and playing fields for large numbers of young people who are far from home is uncommon. University students ordinarily go to schools in their own cities for the baccalaureate degree. (Oxford and Cambridge are exceptions, along with Uppsala and Lund. But the rule is mostly local: London or Helsinki or Koln or Bologna.) Here in America, however, large numbers of students are detached from their homes and communities to form cities of transients. American higher education is made up of Brigadoons; it takes place outside of the context of normal life—of work, home, and family. True, the municipal and state universities attract homebodies. But however accomplished the faculties and able the students, the excellent regional and state universities take second place to what are dubbed the elite colleges and universities of national prominence. The state-supported and state-sponsored universities are rarely mentioned on such lists, and when Berkeley, Ann Arbor, or Chapel Hill do make it, it is always with a vague nod to “the great unwashed” or to the “great rival” of Harvard, which is “Podunk College.” In higher education “best” means national, whether or not the education is good, the faculty is accomplished, or the environment nurtures excellence or even mental health. We all know that best is best. American higher education institutionalizes snobbery.
When people imagine that higher education can accomplish its goals through elite national institutions—and the rest be damned—they make a quite substantive error. For the self-styled national universities sever the vital connection between learning and living, between learning and working. The national university removes the young from home and family and community in the theory that, in these formative years, where one has worked and lived and is likely going to work and live no longer serves a purpose. But education only works when it serves a purpose, when the university is answerable to the community for the here and now of students’ lives. When education is not answerable it becomes surreal.
Students pay a heavy emotional price for the sense of having been chosen to live among the elite: they doubt whether they are all that good, and rightly so. The competition to gain entry into the so-called elite universities is brutal; for every one who is chosen, ten are rejected. The selection process confers upon the chosen not only pride but also self-doubt. Snobbery and conceit then must cover up the uncertainty. The faculties at elite schools also pay a psychological price. They know that it is not the position that honors the person, but the person who honors the position; they know that no university today is “best” in all departments; and they know that most prestigious universities rely for their fame upon their professional schools, rather than on their college and graduate faculties. There is a simple rule of thumb: good people are where they are, good work comes from where it comes from, and important minds impart prestige to the colleges or universities where they do their work.
Does anybody remember Konigsberg, but that Kant worked there? And who cares whether Einstein was a professor at Tubingen or Basel, or Darwin at Cambridge or Leeds, or Freud in Vienna, or Marx in Frankfurt? Inflated endowments, great libraries, tradition, and old buildings can form a facade that conceals a shabby intellectual slum. This is not to compare Ivy League universities to Potemkin villages, nor to say that all emperors are naked. I mean only to ask if it is worth the price exacted of those students and professors, who live lives of conceit, insecurity, and vacuous self-importance.
I left a “hot college” for what some might call a backwater, because I wanted to devote the final chapters of my teaching career to a life of learning and scholarship within a community. At Brown University, smart and lazy and spoiled rich kids told professors that their parents are paying $25,000 a year, so therefore. . . . At the University of South Florida, students come because they’re there and we’re here: it is the only opportunity. I get to teach in a cycle at five campuses, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Fort Myers, Sarasota, and Lakeland, and many of my students will come from their jobs and go on to their homes. At Brown the conventional students do the conventional thing. Here, there is scarcely a convention; a forty-three-year-old woman, a college senior, talks to me about graduate studies, my classroom is open to anyone who registers, and senior citizens come free.
This is not to suggest we have no need for national universities with undergraduate programs. Highly specialized universities such as MIT and Cal Tech will always find a special place for themselves; but their professionalism and their acknowledged eminence in the few things they claim to do justify that place. In the aggregate, however, education works best when learning relates to living, when learning yields to preparation for work—not a particular job to be sure, but the capacity to work in general—and when what we do in the university years leads from somewhere to somewhere. When universities are answerable to their communities, and when communities sustain their universities in a reciprocal relationship, learning is endowed with context and meaning, and education serves a purpose.
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