We dump on the American higher education system regularly these days. We say its high tuitions create unsustainable debt. Many of us think university scholars force false political and cultural assumptions on our children. We worry that the college admission system will make our kids crazy with fear that a few bad high school grades will make them life-long failures.
I sense something wrong with these bleak assumptions. Stoll any campus as schools reopen this fall and you will find not anguish but a lively atmosphere of hope, excitement and fun. Where else do so many young Americans meet so many new people? They are getting together to explore their futures, one of the best parts of our national culture.
I live in Pasadena, Calif., a block from the California Institute of Technology. It has some free-wheeling, perhaps scary traditions.
Pranks abound. “Ditch Day” each year finds freshmen risking bodily harm by solving puzzles, crossing campus ponds, donning bizarre costumes and building unstable vehicles that were left for them as worthy challenges by seniors who escaped campus during the night. School officials say some of the destruction of the past, such as dormitory room doors blown off their hinges, is no longer allowed, but many feats are impressive.
Caltech’s undergraduate body is tiny, with less than a thousand students. Where do the other 99.995 percent of American college attendees find the creative stimulation they yearn for?
The answer is: It is hard to find colleges that have NOT created challenging and exciting programs run by imaginative faculty and students themselves. Young people at thousands of campuses sample eye-catching research, enjoy off-beat past-times and trade the weird jokes that have long bound university people together, just as you see in television’s valentine to Caltech, “The Big Bang Theory,” now rerun on many channels.
If the oft-reported costs and annoyances of our higher education system are so bad for our country, then why are our universities so admired abroad and attract so many foreign students? Tufts University professor emeritus Sol Gittleman has a new book, “An Accidental Triumph: The Improbable History of American Higher Education,” praising American colleges and universities for creating what he calls a “profit-based anarchy,” very different from the rest of the world where faculty are rule-bound civil servants, not ambitious entrepreneurs.
“Beyond our borders, almost universal appreciation exists for this enormous, flawed, and disorganized academic enterprise that America has created,” he said.
Every school is different. Many people, including me, would be terrified by what Caltech demands academically, including stringent math, physics, chemistry and labs in freshman year. But that’s just one school showing off. Most colleges, including places like Yale, encourage first year students to try whatever courses they like.
Hang around any large university and you will find flocks of nerds gobbling a vast array of passions. The same is true on smaller campuses. Students immerse themselves in Ming dynasty poetry, labor union development, accelerated science teaching, environmental law and just about anything else you can think of.
Life-long friendships form there. Those personal connections prove to be much more important to our children’s futures than the admission practices that have inspired so much debate and resentment as the Harvard and University of North Carolina cases were decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Experienced college admission advisors do their best to get clients into very selective schools, but they know there will be many rejections. So what? After those initial disappointments young people find great satisfaction at allegedly lesser colleges which offer the same thrilling research, local customs and engrossing extra-curriculars that Caltech and the Ivies do.
“I believe selective colleges on the whole offer outstanding academic programs and challenge their students,” said Rob Franek, editor in chief of The Princeton Review and lead author of its “Best Colleges” book. “But the perception that selective colleges do this better than others and that they are ‘the best’ academically—which is fueled by college rankings solely based on measures of academics, some of which are controversial and questionable—is debatable.”
I enjoy the exuberant activities at Caltech, but campus-wide craziness is everywhere. At Berry College in Georgia there are field days where dorms compete against each other with specially designed t-shirts, floats and many games with imaginative prizes. Kalamazoo College in Michigan has an annual Day of Gracious Living in which classwork is banned and mayhem encouraged. Goucher College in Maryland has Humans vs. Zombies weekends where students wear bandanas revealing their species and conduct secret missions twice each night.
Our future lives are often defined by the intriguing people we get to know when thrown together in college. That process is much more important than how the colleges pick who gets in. It sometimes takes a while to find one’s true calling, but sharing the search with others is a joy.
I started at one college, then switched to another my second year. I tried drama and student government. I was intrigued, though sometimes unsettled, to find myself at late night parties full of people with tastes and life styles very different from my own. I embraced that as part of the learning process, as many young people do. It wasn’t until December of my sophomore year that I wandered into the student newspaper where I found my trade, as well as the woman who became the love of my life.
The way we do undergraduate education could be improved. We need to make it more accessible to people without much money. But encouraging students to meet new people and explore new subjects is vital, and is happening now at many colleges we often have not heard of.