Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Academia in the Philadelphia Region
Higher education is a source of pride, progress, and aggravation.

Future Directions for Colleges

Nicholas Murray Butler

As Columbia University's president for forty-two years, Nicholas Murray Butler officiated at many graduation exercises in front of Columbia's Low Library. In later years, it became a prevailing joke among snickering undergraduates that he would inevitably make reference in his commencement address to the Library behind him, repeating his firm opinion that "A University is a collection of books".

Columbia University

There are other opinions about what universities are, but Butler's famous oration that its library is the heart and soul of any university, is certainly defensible. It's thus plausible for what is happening to libraries to be the text here for what is currently happening to colleges. Librarians following best practices of their profession are engaged in a massive exercise in book-trading with each other, rather like the frenzied teen-age trading of postage stamps and baseball cards. Those books they have but don't much use, are traded off in return for books needed to complete a distinguished collection in whatever topic has been designated their "core mission". With efficient trading, a physical concentration of a thousand books on one topic is more valuable than the same thousand books scattered around the world and far more valuable than a thousand-book assortment of mixed messages collected in one place, which is how each library begins. Thus, having collected a higher assessment value, and a "distinguished collection" reputation, they are ready to face the threats to librarian existence from the Internet. For convenience if for no better reason, scholars in any particular topic start to congregate at a college which has a complete collection of books in their area of interest. In itself, this congregation of like-minded becomes a further attraction to other scholars. Ultimately, with a strong faculty in a particular topic, students with an interest in a career along such lines are attracted to specific colleges and become eligible to become graduate students and eventually teachers. Hidden in here somewhere is a means to advance many careers, and let's face it, to enhance faculty salaries. But it's sort of harmless, designed for the good of educational attainment and the intellectual enrichment of the nation.

Since about a quarter of a million students are constantly attending college in the general region of Philadelphia, several hundred institutions around here are continuously sorting themselves out in a gigantic archipelago of college libraries, each linked to variable football success and endowment size, specialized interests, and levels of talent. By the monograms on their sweatshirts, ye shall know them.

It surely goes too far to blame all this on Nick Butler, or a national conspiracy of librarians. We are engaged in a massive national effort to expand the excellence of our colleges and universities, to meet the transformation of our society from the industrial to the information society, and to maintain our leadership among developed nations. Fifty years ago, the Economist tells us, only three American universities could compete with Oxford and Cambridge; nowadays, at least thirty are better than anything in Europe. Judging from the present vicious scramble for admission to prestige colleges, the market could immediately absorb fifty more premiers, highly selective, world-beating universities. So, say a thousand college presidents, why not us?

In my opinion, you can see here a main underlying justification for college tuitions of fifty thousand dollars a year, per student. The individual parents say they can't afford such tuitions, and so the nation as a whole may possibly not be able to afford them, either. So far, at least, no one questions that an informal Marshall Plan for colleges is a good thing. Whenever you see a situation universally accepted like that, look out. What everybody knows, is often not worth knowing.

Among other things, American education is also headed for the specialization trap. It's rapidly becoming apparent that employers undervalue a liberal education in the people they hire; it won't take those eager beavers long to figure that out when they apply to college. Here's a tip, kids: a chemical engineer can expect to make a much larger income than a chemist. The Human Resources employees of Walmart and Microsoft were not elected to shape the future of graduate education, but that's who is going to do it if we follow present trends. If it's too strong to heap blame on industry's front men, take a look at the leaders of industry; it's rather easy to assess the academic credentials of, say, the board of directors of any local country club for their ability to shape academic policies. Whoever is making educational policy, let's restrain the growing dominance of pre-employment training in our national goals for a liberal education. Maybe it wasn't so bad when clergymen were in charge of colleges.

Other internal trends collide with external vocational pressure on colleges. The committee chose to select the concentration areas for a college library soon notice that it is easier to become notable for a rare and obscure subject than an important recognized one. Will, that leads to a desirable outcome? Everyone has a dozen editions of Shakespeare, and you can be very certain that Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale all have distinguished collections of Elizabethan literature, associated with famous scholars. Why in the world would a small struggling college try to collect Shakespeare books or Shakespeare experts? Furthermore, it is probably possible to buy a tape recording of the most distinguished Shakespeare scholar in the world, giving a breath-taking lecture on the second Act in Hamlet. Could the new Assistant Professor of Literature in a small college compete with that tape recording? On the other hand, should our most struggling colleges specialize in minor obscurities?

In fact, anything the small college teacher could say would seem shabby by comparison with the world-acknowledged master of the subject, holding forth with the lecture that made him famous. And so, one wonders, whether the current fashion to sneer at the Canon of books, written by "dead, old, white men" is not a way of avoiding comparison with performances that have survived the much hotter competition. If you carry this a little further, you can see a pressure to avoid offering courses in subject areas which centuries of serious consideration have designated to be the best that civilization offers. The top of the cultural heap has risen to the top because many generations have found what deserves to be there; one would normally suppose those topics, those authors, would be the ones you would want to study if you yourself aspire to be considered an educated person. But if present trends continue very much further, you may find that colleges which have decided to specialize in minutiae are in addition avoiding exposure of the students to what our culture considers to be the best. This is one of those things where a little is probably pretty good, but too much of it is destructive. A well-financed, highly talented college applicant can go to a place where the best of our educational product is presented in an outstanding way. Less competitive student applicants may be faced with a choice between bizarre topics, taught very well, or outstanding subjects taught rather poorly. Or, perhaps worst of all, forced to drop down to a lower rung of the academic ladder, where teaching aspirations are low in every topic so only Shakespeare, Dante, Plato, Dickens and the like can overcome deficiencies in the way they are taught.

A quick look at the other end of the spectrum gives the same thought a different twist. The universities which can afford to be insanely selective of their entering student class can also afford to ignore them. Intensely motivated, supremely talented kids, will surely succeed no matter how poorly their courses are taught. They will work hard, mainly to compete with their classmates, who are just as competitive as they are. In fact, it is surely already true that the peer pressure from their classmates has a stronger direct influence on their achievements than the faculty does. Perhaps the faculty has a strong influence indirectly, just as the president of the University is a role model five times removed. If we do not somehow reconsider the processes now underway, the archipelago of colleges will become little more than a postal sorting machine, doing its best to avoid leaving many imprints on the envelopes except a score. As the CEO of America's largest investment banking firm once told the people doing his hiring for him, "Harvard, Yale, Princeton -- Princeton preferred --, 3.6 or better. We don't care what they majored in." With a little more sophistication, displaying just a little more insight into the process, he might have added, "But make certain that what they majored in, was rigorous." If it ever gets to the point where the label you wear is more important than the training you received, the power of universities to set their own prices, select their own customers, and define their own product will have come to the end of the trail. Judging by other industries, that time will probably occur when America finally succeeds in building more first-class university campuses than we can use.

Originally published: Thursday, June 22, 2006; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 22, 2019