Jefferson's Children (Leon Botstein)

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  Once the prestigious end point of education and the province of the few, college is gradually becoming a pivotal intermediary step in our essentially democratic system of education. It forms a necessary bridge to graduate and professional education. The American college has retained some of its glamorous aura even though its role has expanded and despite pressure from below by the shortcomings of high school preparation and from above by the expectations of advanced study beyond the B.A. degree. College is now as indispensable as high school was a century ago for advancement beyond blue-collar employment. In an economy based on technology and human services, college has become today's minimum standard of schooling. Half of the population that reaches eighteen and finishes high school now starts college, a figure that represents nearly 40 percent of all American eighteen-year olds.

Even though the two-year community college program is the fastest-growing part of American postsecondary education, the image of college that the public still holds up as exemplary in its collective imagination is that of the private, residential New England college. We imagine college as a place with ivy covering the walls of Federal style or Gothic Revival buildings. These structures form the ubiquitous campus quadrangle with its well-kept and carefully edged lawn. Nearly, every college prospectus--the brochure sent to prospective students--features some sort of a scene showing happy, smiling faces framed by the bright colors of fall leaves. Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and the College of William and Mary were the first to help shape this ideal. The pretensions of these elite American residential colleges harken back to their English progenitors and examples, notably Oxford and Cambridge. In the Northeast, the South, and the Midwest throughout the nineteenth century, this Anglophilic model was imitated with variations. One thinks of Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Kenyon, Grinnell, Duke, and Vanderbilt.

The great, huge land-grant universities founded in the late nineteenth century also drew inspiration from the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century American college and its English predecessors. These land-grant universities were novel. They also integrated aspects of the nineteenth-century German research university. By the twentieth century, the American university and college had evolved into a distinct and highly competitive offshoot of English and continental European traditions. The most prominent aspect of the English inheritance is the special place maintained by undergraduate education. The idea persists that the college years are crucial, since they prepare an elite to exercise leadership in society. This claim lies at the heart of the standard speech given by most college presidents to each year's entering class.

Habits reminiscent of a feudal European aristocratic past linger on in American colleges and universities. Each college has its own seal: a sort of coat of arms. Like a clan or aristocratic family, each has its own motto. Universities have their official songs, their school colors, and frequently their private clubs and societies. Every institution seeks to cultivate a nearly exclusive sense of loyalty and obligation among its members, past and present. Colleges justify this effort by making claims to unique heritages, customs, and legacies. They hope that students will internalize a lifelong sense of identification somewhat akin to membership in a tribe or an eighteenth-century Masonic lodge. The generalized expectation is that the years spent in college will be transformative and decisive to one's life.

Like competing feudal baronies, colleges maintain active rivalries and jealousies sustained mostly through intercollegiate sports. No analysis of American colleges should be permitted to gloss over the scandal constituted by the collegiate emphasis on semiprofessional athletics. Sports are an essential part of college life, but as a participatory learning opportunity. It is an embarrassment that so much time, effort, emotion, and money are expended on gladiatorial exhibitions by state and private institutions. They corrupt academic standards and institutional integrity. We should support athletics in the Greek ideal--that of amateurism and general participation--not in the Roman model in which training is lavished on a few and the rest of the community is relegated to being passive spectators. The investment in and image of excellence and superiority should be reserved for teaching and research, not the playing field. The threat of negative alumni/ae reaction should be faced head-on as part of a national movement that highlights the civic support needed for the educational mission at the university. We do not need the university to provide sports entertainment on television for the general public. In the end, the public will respect the university more if it separates itself from prime-time sports competition.

Sports feed the endemic territorialism of American colleges. Not a year goes by at Harvard without some ritual in which clever jibes are directed at Yale. Anti-Harvard jokes crop up each year at Yale. Williams and Amherst, Smith and Mt. Holyoke, Carleton and St. Olaf's, all seek to maintain a competitive tension, vis-à-vis one another, among their staff, students, and alumni/ae. Colleges treat current students as part of a mythically continuous and coherent organism that can pass on particular rituals and recognizable principles from one generation to the next. While much of this sounds, and in fact is, somewhat childish and anachronistic, the investment in sustaining a ready-made institutional sense of identity works as a psychological device. A sense of place and belonging becomes available immediately to entering students. This is a compelling strategy, for it offers to every vulnerable adolescent a facile and reassuring response to the inevitable sense of doubt about one's self-worth and place in the world that adolescents, often away from home for the first time, periodically feel. Unfortunately, too many Ivy League college graduates have been overwhelmed by the allure of the official institutional image, which later in life often signals the highwater mark of an individual's own sense of personal distinction and achievement.

But despite America's uniquely colorful and apparently highly variegated assemblage of public and private institutions, each with its own identity and traditions, there is an underlying and terrifying truth. Most American institutions are complacent and intellectually uniform. American institutions are largely indistinguishable from each other, interchangeable in terms of curriculum, faculty, and basic campus atmosphere. The number of truly distinctive and genuinely unique institutions is actually rather small; the list might include the California Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, and St. John's College in Annapolis.
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Excerpted from Jefferson's Children by Leon Botstein. Copyright © 1997 by Leon Botstein. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.