Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 89 (January 1999): 33-37.
Choosing the Right College: The Whole Truth about America’s Top 100 Schools. Compiled by the Staff of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Introduction by William J. Bennett. Eerdmans. 680 pp. $25.
Reviewed by Gilbert Meilaender
In February 1997 the Chicago Tribune carried a front–page article on recent moves in some colleges and universities to develop programs in gender studies. For those who have spent years in the academy this movement is old hat and does not occasion much surprise. What caught even my jaded eye, however, in the midst of a listing of several academic institutions beginning to develop such programs, was the following item:
At New York University, a Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies is being formed to study women and men as well as homosexuals, bisexuals, and transsexuals—so called "queer studies," which have experienced a burst of growth in the last few years. The NYU executive search team hopes to include candidates for the directorship who have surgically changed their sex.
My first thought, given the continuing tough job market in academia, was to picture despairing Ph.D.’s pondering whether the time had come to begin hormone treatments. But, of course, one can also read this as a reductio ad absurdum of the contemporary state of the academy in this country.
Into such a world has come in recent years a proliferation of college guides—aiming to tell would–be students and their parents what they need to know about the choices before them. And in a world in which a college degree has become—probably foolishly and unfortunately—a kind of "credential" one needs to gain employment (even employment for which the degree provides precious little preparation), students and parents are wise to ponder their options. Of considerable help in that task will be this most recent entry into the college guide market, which has been compiled and produced by the staff of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. ISI has a long history of working with college students and faculty, it brings a distinctly conservative perspective to the task of producing such a guide, and it has clearly put a great deal of time and energy into the project. Because of its long history, ISI has many contacts—both faculty and student—on campuses around the country, and a reader of this Guide will see that a great deal of information has come from actual interviews conducted with those who teach and learn on the respective campuses.
A few caveats are probably in order. I’m not persuaded that the one hundred colleges discussed in this Guide are really the top one hundred in the country. If one were going to select solely in terms of academic quality, there are certainly some schools omitted that ought not be. The Guide does not explain in any detail its principle(s) of selection, though in his Introduction William Bennett gives a general sense of how the choices were made:
The principle of selection . . . is eminently practical: of the one hundred institutions covered, the majority—about eighty—were chosen according to competitive admissions figures. These are, quite simply, the most selective schools in the country. . . . The remaining twenty institutions constitute a special list of colleges recommended by the editors as beacons of excellence in preserving the liberal arts tradition.
Nor does the Guide directly tell us much about what constitutes a good college education, though it tells us a good bit indirectly through its comments on the various schools. In the editors’ "How to Use This Guide" readers are clearly informed what its central focus will be: It will tell "where you will be able to find the liberal arts tradition at our nation’s elite institutions of higher education." In the Guide, this means something quite specific—a core curriculum in which students do common reading in (classic) texts of the Western tradition. That focus raises a number of questions, many of which I take up below.
One other caveat is worth mentioning—and at this point I find the parent in me and the professor in me difficult to reconcile. In his Introduction, Bennett suggests that "if there is ever to be genuine, long–lasting education reform, parents and students will have to become shrewder and better–informed education consumers," and he expresses the hope that this Guide may aid in that endeavor. The parent in me understands and appreciates this claim. The professor, though, has more hesitation. Especially in a Guide dedicated to upholding the merits of a liberal arts education, one might look for some caution about thinking of students (and their parents) as "consumers" of higher education. Indeed, that kind of attitude may be almost as destructive of genuine academic life as is the current "politicization" everywhere so prevalent. How to overcome this tension between parent and professor I do not know for sure, but I doubt whether academic institutions that think of themselves simply as responding to consumer pressures are likely really to sustain high-quality education in the liberal arts.
At any rate and caveats aside, in part this Guide is intended to do and will do what a guide is supposed to do—provide parents and students with information they may well desire about colleges and universities they are considering or might consider. For each of the one hundred colleges discussed the Guide provides information and comment under four headings: 1) an introduction to the history and "current climate" of the institution; 2) a discussion of the school’s academic requirements and faculty; 3) a comment on the "political atmosphere" (e.g., speech codes, recent controversies about "political correctness," etc.); and 4) information about student life (e.g., clubs and organizations, housing options, surrounding environment).
The schools discussed cover a wide range of types and sizes: large state universities and smaller private universities, small elite liberal arts colleges, institutions that retain a strong church connection, a few schools that self–consciously teach the "great books." No one could be intimately acquainted with all one hundred of the institutions included. A small number of them I know very well though, and I have at least a passing acquaintance with a larger number. Where I can judge, the Guide seems to me, on the whole, quite accurate and trustworthy. Its discussion of "academic life" at each of these schools is often quite specific. That is, it will mention professors who are especially good or to be sought out. (It is not always clear whether these are especially eminent faculty, particularly good teachers, or simply "trust-worthy" members of the faculty—though, of course, there is no reason why someone cannot be all three of these.)
At least as helpful, I am inclined to think, will be the information in the sections on "political atmosphere" and "student life." For better or worse, going to college means living in a place for four years, often living with others in very close quarters, and—the decline of in loco parentis notwithstanding—being "governed" in many respects by mid–level administrators in offices of student and residential life. One can generally avoid far more easily the bad class or bad professor than one can avoid being submerged in the general ethos of a campus.
In this respect the Guide’s steadfast commitment to a core curriculum sometimes seems to outweigh its appreciation for the importance of a school’s overall ethos. Thus, for example, the long–standing commitment of Columbia University to a serious core curriculum causes the Guide to conclude that "the liberal arts tradition has survived better at Columbia than at most places." Yet Columbia is also, as the Guide notes, a campus dominated in many respects by groups on the "cultural left." It is, for example, on the cusp of what is becoming a growing movement in that it has a university–approved student organization dedicated to discussing and promoting bondage, domination, and sadomasochism. Does a serious core curriculum make up for this? Which, in the long run, has a greater effect on the character of students? Relatively few students, of course, are likely to become serious devotees of BDSM. Relatively many, however, are likely to make their peace with the ethos by becoming relativists of a kind all too common in colleges and universities. Such practices are not for them, but, on the other hand, they cannot say they are wrong for others. Consent becomes the sole moral value in such a world—and it is not surprising that relatively young students should feel driven to a morality in which consent always has trump. In this way our valued tradition of political liberalism seeps into the whole of the moral life and the structure of our institutions.
For reasons that puzzle me a little the Guide is generally positive about fraternities and sororities and generally critical of institutions that have sought to eliminate them. Sometimes in this connection the Guide has a serious point to make. For example, noting that Carleton College prohibits fraternities and sororities, the Guide quite acutely notes the irony that these organizations are banned because they are considered "closed," while Carleton approves and fosters "diverse" groups such as racially segregated organizations. But it also characterizes Bowdoin’s recent decision to outlaw fraternities and sororities as "a rather totalitarian act for a group of people who state their commitment to freedom, choice, and individual rights." Perhaps it is true that institutions at which consent has become the only shared value do act paradoxically in banning Greek life. Nonetheless, the Guide does not really desire colleges in which no heed is paid to the overall ethos or atmosphere of the place. And once we grant that such attention should be paid, the case for fraternities and sororities needs some defense. At least to the outsider it is not always clear that they foster traits of character we should want to be defending.
A very instructive feature of the Guide is that it pays attention to the physical appearance of campuses—not in every case, but in many. Thus, it notes of Rhodes College, located in Memphis, Tenn., that it "has stuck with a campus plan that calls for beautiful neo–Gothic buildings rather than the more contemporary (and less expensive) institutional buildings now in favor on college campuses. The result is not only a truly lovely campus, but one where the surroundings elevate the mind." Or again, it notes quite rightly that the "Collegiate Gothic buildings" of Kenyon College "are stunning." Or, to take a contrary example, it notes of the University of Dallas—a school whose academic program is highly praised in the Guide—that, as a result of its relative financial woes, "many campus buildings need renovation." In general, and apart from any particular judgments, it is heartening and useful to see this emphasis in the Guide. A campus should have nooks and crannies, trees and quadrangles, buildings that invite leisured reflection—and the Guide gives heed to such features.
In his short introduction, Gregory Wolfe, Editor–in–Chief of the project, suggests that the Guide may serve to do more than simply provide the kind of information I have noted thus far. It may also provide "a comprehensive survey of the state of higher education in America." That invites us to reflect on larger issues and judgments, often implicitly embedded in the Guide’s comments, about what constitutes a good education. Some of these issues are well worth our attention, and, despite my considerable sympathy for the perspective that underlies this Guide, I think we need to ask some hard questions about the view that, for the most part, underlies its discussions of "academic life" at the respective institutions.
We can begin with the Guide’s clear, if often implicit, advocacy of what it likes to call a "true core curriculum": a shared core of important texts that is much more than a set of distribution requirements and more than a supposed core (e.g., at Harvard) which in fact allows so much choice that no shared body of knowledge is conveyed. Indeed, at some points the Guide even seems to think that these texts should be read without the benefit of secondary sources ("‘unfiltered by textbooks and prejudices,’" as a graduate of Thomas More College who is quoted puts it). But, of course, there is no reason to suppose that the student who takes on the great books without help from (perhaps) lesser thinkers who have written about them will do so free of prejudices. True enough, textbooks that merely summarize views of thinkers are no substitute for careful reading of hard texts. But there is much useful secondary literature that does not fit the textbook model. The trick is to learn a willingness to approach old texts as if they have something to teach us. Secondary sources may sometimes get in the way of such receptivity, but they may also sometimes assist it.
More important, devotion to a "true core curriculum," as the Guide envisions it, seems inevitably to favor "generalists" and to cut against "mastery" of a particular subject matter. I am not sure there is anything more liberating about knowing a little about many things than knowing much about a few things. In a world in which there is far more to be learned than any of us can manage, there is something to be said for knowing what we do not know and knowing also, at least with respect to one discipline, what it means genuinely to know something. For the same reason much of the talk about inter–or multi–disciplinary study now in vogue ought to be viewed with skepticism. The notion that those who have not yet advanced very far in any discipline should be prepared to do genuinely interdisciplinary work is not very persuasive. Hence, the animus against specialists and in favor of generalists needs more defense if it is really to be seen as essential to a liberal arts education.
Curiously, however, what the Guide tends to overlook in its advocacy of a core curriculum is precisely the current state of the academy in this country. On the whole, the Guide is not happy with the tenor of the faculty at many of our very best institutions. Yet, if a true core curriculum were to be put in place, those faculty are the people who would be deciding what "common reading experience" to require of "all students." Whatever might be the case in the best of all possible worlds, why should we think such a curriculum would be a good thing in the world we actually inhabit? There are very few institutions in this country—though there are a few, often church–related—whose faculties I would more or less trust to develop a coherent and sensible body of common, required reading. Most of the time what is likely to result from such an attempt is a set of readings designed to satisfy as many different ideological constituencies as possible, a kind of mishmash of readings that become hoops through which students must jump. In most of our colleges and universities today we would be far wiser to argue against core curricula—and, even, to argue for only the most minimal of distribution requirements. Then the good students will at least be set free, and perhaps with some good advice and a little luck they will find the good courses taught by the good faculty identified in the Guide.
Consider, for example, the alphabetically first institution in the Guide—Amherst College, a selective and distinguished institution. The Guide reports—disapprovingly—that the only class required of students is a seminar in the first year, and even for that a number of seminars are taught on different topics, any of which will meet the requirement. Apart from that: "Amherst does require thirty–two courses for graduation—and that’s it." What the Guide thinks bad, however, I tend to think good. Four courses per semester—that sounds about right. (Students who take more often learn less—and have less time for the kind of casual intellectual browsing that education also needs to involve.) The opportunity to sample where one will and acquire mastery where one will. (Why, for instance, does the Guide regard as a "failing" the very opportunity to take courses on a "pass–fail" basis? Overused it is a bad idea. But used properly it encourages students to sample what they might otherwise avoid.) The chance especially for the best students—and there will be degrees of excellence even at an Amherst—to find and take more than one class taught by Hadley Arkes, Robert Hilborn, Rebecca Sinos, and the other "outstanding professors" noted by the Guide.
One distribution requirement we probably need. Very likely we need a requirement that students take at least a few courses in the natural sciences. We need that because (a) it is there more than the humanities that academic standards and serious grading practices have been maintained, (b) it is there that one tends to encounter some of the brightest, most disciplined, least "trendy," and most religious students and faculty, and (c) it is there that the curriculum must be rather vertically structured and students cannot simply dip in at one place or another. Apart from that, however, in most of our colleges—and certainly in the best—I would argue that a wise strategy at the present would be to defend only the most minimal of requirements. There are moments when the Guide recognizes this. Of Tulane, for instance, it says: "There is a widespread belief that implementing a core at this juncture in the university’s history would be quite dangerous: given the number of radical faculty on campus, as well as the leftist leanings of the administration and its huge affirmative action machine, the potential for mistakes is too great to chance revamping the curriculum now." Those words have, I suspect, a more general applicability.
Related to the Guide’s tendency to prefer a curriculum that creates generalists is its near animus against heavy emphasis on faculty research and publication. Thus, it will praise any college that does not "put publishing first and teaching second." That sort of formulation, of course, wins the argument a bit too easily. No one would, I suppose, deny that we need some kind of balance between teaching and publication, but a word needs to be said in behalf of serious publication requirements even at colleges that are far from being "research universities." Faculty members almost always know more than their students about the subject they teach. Were that not the case, it would be hard to know why students need them. (This fact makes more than a little humorous student evaluation forms that ask students to comment on the instructor’s knowledge of the material.) It is, therefore, at least for some faculty, a rather "heady" experience to walk into the classroom. It is possible, all too easily possible, to misuse one’s relatively greater knowledge in the service of ideological interests. It is all too pleasurable to be, day after day, the acknowledged expert. Attaching one’s name to a published article or book changes things considerably. For all the flaws that academic publishing involves, for all the articles written to be read only by a handful of others, it is still true that within the academy as a whole there will be smart people, knowledgable people, who will disagree—and may say so in print. In short, publishing requirements keep us honest. That is why they are important and needed. Moreover, it is often the most dedicated and hard–working teachers who are the most widely published scholars. I think the Guide too readily assumes that rigorous publication standards are detrimental to the health of the academy.
For reasons that are never fully developed in the Guide and that puzzle me, it also seems to assume that the best college teaching will not take the form of lecturing but will, presumably, involve small discussion classes. Thus, for example, it says that the senior faculty at Harvard "are starting to forget about educating. . . . Well–known scholars, of which Harvard has a boatload, mainly teach large lecture classes." What’s to complain about? If this were the greatest of Harvard’s problems, who could ever discourage a student from applying? Really smart students should be overjoyed at the opportunity to hear a series of lectures from Harvey Mansfield, Thomas Scanlon, or Jon Levenson. In Coming Apart, his "Memoir of the Harvard Wars of 1969," Roger Rosenblatt, reflecting first upon his own reasons for leaving teaching, turns to some wider reflections about the task itself. "What the brighter students honor in their favorite teachers," he writes, "is the quality of worry. They like to see teachers worry about the material, and they like to overhear them worry. That, I think, is what the best teaching is—being overheard as one worries aloud about a subject." Worrying aloud about a subject while being overheard—overheard by students who are gradually acquiring the capacity to enter into this worrying by listening to one who is relatively skilled at it. That is not a bad description of lecturing, and there will always be an important place for it in college education.
Of course, this is not the only way to teach. St. John’s College teaches its great books program almost exclusively in seminars; yet, consider how the Guide makes the point: "The seventeen to twenty–one students in each seminar sit in a circle, not to hear a lecture, but to discuss a central question raised by the ‘tutor’ regarding the text they have all read." As one who was a student in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I believe I can state definitively that sitting in circles is overrated. Moreover, this form of teaching, even in the hands of the expert teachers one is likely to encounter at St. John’s, is not best for all sorts of material. Even for suitable material, it is not a method that always serves the educational interests of the best students, who may often find themselves frustrated with the progress of discussion. So some kind of balance among teaching styles seems to be what we ought really to be recommending.
About any number of the judgments offered above, I may be mistaken. And, given the diversity of colleges discussed in the Guide, it is to some degree impossible to generalize. Nevertheless, if we want to move beyond just picking a college to thinking about "a comprehensive survey of the state of higher education in America," these are some of the questions we need to be discussing. One thing is clear, though, and the Guide rightly notes it on several occasions. Over the past decade or more, there has been a "buyers’ market" for faculty in the academy. There is, then, little excuse for schools that have tenured mediocre faculty or faculty who are chiefly committed to politicizing the curriculum in particular or the institution more generally. It is possible to do better. If we want to do better, however, we need to know what sort of faculty we seek and what kind of education we want. To stimulate our reflection upon such subjects this Guide will provide something like a cruse of oil that never runs dry.
Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University.