Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Reputation and substance in higher ed

Claremont’s Matthew Peterson has strong views about the state of contemporary higher education, especially if you consider what goes on at the colleges and universities with the best reputations. My own much less colorful reflections are here.

Matt thinks, with some reason, that these exceptionally wealthy places are frittering away their moral, intellectual, and cultural capital and that we may be approaching a time when it might actually be a good career move actually to gain an education at a currently less reputable (but morally, culturally and intellectually more sound) institution. He names a few; I’d add a few more to his list.

But.... I have this residual concern about "monasticism" and the inability to respond effectively to "the other," though Matthew himself goes a long way toward allaying my concern.

Along these lines, another piece worth reading is James Piereson’s discussion of giving to colleges, which all too often is done without sufficient thought to the ultimate consequences. Smarter giving would strengthen the hands of people like Robert George.

Discussions - 5 Comments

Thanks for the link.

I only mentioned a few alternative schools--clearly there are many more that deserve mention!

I suppose my rant could have been more measured...but I think it important that we keep an idea of just how idiotic things are.

At the same time, obviously, there are serious concerns about these alternatives and some of the reputation of the "big leagues" is clearly justified.

At least we should all note the problem/tension. On the one hand, I want people to realize I have respect for many of the established schools, etc.

On the other I get a little ticked when positively moronic activity at so-called liberal arts schools is simply accepted as normal, and people like me (who went to "alternative" schools) get labeled as having inferior degrees.

My father graduated from Princeton, and it’s quite possible that I would have been admitted as a `legacy’ student. Instead, I applied for early admission to Kenyon College. Meanwhile, my best friend went to Harvard. We graduated at the same time (more than thirty years ago). I got a better education than he did. Part of this may have been a matter of course selection, but not all of it was.

If a student intends to become a `professional’ of some sort, he’s looking at a graduate degree of some sort, anyway. It’s the grad degree that functions as the key `credential.’ You can get into a prestigious grad school with a degree from a good, small place. A small place without a substantial graduate school is likely to do a better job at delivering a liberal education than a bigger one because you will get more time with senior professors.

I’m tempted to agree with Will, though I think Matt would argue that the issue isn’t big vs. small. Pomona College, which may be delightful in some respects (I like John Seery a lot; he’s a great teacher who cares about his students and is no reflexive ideologue), clearly has other sorts of problems. Perhaps getting a good education is slightly more possible at small places (people actually pay attention to undergraduate education, and not just by accident or out of a perverse death wish), so long as they’re not too prominent or fashionable. When you hire based on conventional academic prestige, you run the risk of importing any current academic fad into what otherwise might be a collegiate Shangri-La.

I definitely think it’s easier to get a better education at a small place; no graduate program definitely helped my undergradyate education.

And, as I’ve matured and looked at what I’d like to learn, both for work and for leisure, I think that formal education has become overrated. After all, Shakespeare wasn’t a professor.


Joe’s point is well taken. There are several factors at work: size (college vs. university), curriculum (Shakespeare vs. books by academic hacks), and of course the teachers themselves. I prefer colleges to universities on the grounds that you get senior professors as your teachers; I prefer Shakespeare to `textbooks’ because I’m not an idiot.

As for the teachers, that’s where Tony’s statement comes in. I tell my students that I’m the secondary (second-rate is more like it) teacher. The primary teacher is, depending on the course, Publius, Aristotle, Tocqueville. While you do need to pay attention to me, your secondary teacher, because I’m the one who’s going to give you a grade, your real learning should come outside of class, reading the books by the first-rate minds. The purpose of class is to try to clarify what the first-rate minds are trying to teach. The best students take me seriously; the others try to slide by without really learning much from the first-raters. Another benefit of a small place is that I can easily tell the difference between those two kinds of students.

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