Well. You could knock me over with a feather. For years I'd thought that placing a modest decal on the rear window of my automobile was an inoffensive way of expressing my loyalty and gratitude to the public university I attended. But what do I know? I learn now, thanks to an article in The New Republic by the critic and gadfly Paul Fussell, that my decal is in point of fact part of a "mechanism of snobbery." He writes:

"Americans are the only people in the world known to me whose status anxieties prompt them to advertise their university affiliations in the rear windows of their cars. You can drive all over Europe without once seeing a rear-window sticker reading 'Christ Church' or 'Universite de Paris.' A convention here is that the higher learning is so serious a matter that no joking or parodying are permitted . . . Some things are too serious for joking. But the credit of even fairly undistinguished colleges is remarkably high, and something of the sacred seems to attend their identities. Indeed, as institutions everyone honors, they seem to outrank the church . . ."

It is with this observation, evidently a calculatedly provocative one, that Fussell launches into an addled but useful discussion of a considerably more important subject: the ways in which we use and abuse our institutions of allegedly higher learning for purposes having little or nothing to do with the advancement of knowledge. To the specific charge that American colleges and universities are "schools for snobbery," I would argue that Fussell has created, no doubt in the hope of stirring up great whoops of righteous indignation, a half-truth; the quest for status may have much to do with the decals, pennants, scarves and other icons of college affiliation, but the quest for identity probably is even more significant. The central question that haunts the American psyche is, "Who am I?" Displaying one's identification with an alma mater -- flaunting it, if you will -- is one way of attempting to answer that question. I suspect that Fussell finds darker motives for the wearing of the old school tie than actually exist.

But when Fussell gets to the business of analyzing institutional one-upmanship within the groves of academe, he is on solid ground and he says a number of unpleasant things that badly need saying. He makes note of "the prestige invested in American academic institutions, their tenderness to slight or disregard, their jealous pursuit of honor," then goes on to argue that many if not most of the establishments in this country that call themselves "universities" are richly undeserving of the name. He cites a pertinent example:

"Many TV viewers of a recent national basketball championship must have been as puzzled as I was to see 'James Madison University,' which was playing the University of North Carolina. This institution, located in Harrisonburg, Virginia, until recently was Madison College, a modest teacher-training outfit. It has been promoted now to a status bringing it into comparison with Bologna, Oxford and the Sorbonne, but it still specializes in elementary education, and the average verbal score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test of its freshmen is a dismal 455 for the men, 463 for the women . . ."

Though it may seem unfair of Fussell to single out James Madison for such ridicule, the point he makes is exact and appropriate, painful though it may be for loyalists of JMU and similar institutions to acknowledge. That relatively few American universities are distinguished, are even universities, is less a comment on American higher education than a reflection of our urge to slap the label of "university" on any institution that has a blackboard, a mortarboard and a football team. No doubt Fussell is correct in sensing that an urge for status has something to do with this, but there is more to it than that -- as Fussell inadvertently acknowledges in raising a couple of points that deserve more attention than he gives them.

One is that, according to postwar American mythology, a college degree is a ticket not merely to prestige and respectability, but also to a better job and a larger income. It is transparently obvious that the degree itself is of greater moment in our culture and economy than the education allegedly attached to it, but that is not the point. If, in a nation that holds equality of opportunity as a sacred right, a college degree increases the individual's chances of fulfilling his opportunities, then it follows that college degrees should be made as widely available as possible -- which means more colleges empowered to hand out these degrees, and in turn more "universities" because they are perceived to be more august than mere colleges and their degrees thus more valuable as tickets to the good life.

The second point is intimately related to the first: The "democratization" of higher education, which Fussell correctly traces to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations' pursuit of "opening up educational opportunity," brought with it an inevitable decline in the standards of higher education. This is not because democracy is bad, but because the pool of available excellence -- in education as in anything else -- is exceedingly small. When everyone believes he has a "right" to higher education, and when thousands of institutions are competing to offer him that education, the results are certain to be precisely as described by Fussell:

". . .intelligence and learning and curiosity are, regrettably, rarer than some imagine, and you don't bring people into contact with them simply by announcing that you're doing that. 'Educational opportunity' was opened up by the process of verbal inflation, by promoting, that is, numerous normal schools, teachers' colleges, provincial 'theological seminaries,' trade schools, business schools and secretarial institutes to the name and status of 'universities,' thus conferring on them an identity they were by no means equipped to bear, or even understand."

Perhaps because Fussell himself is squirreled away on a campus, he seems unaware that more often than not this "verbal inflation" can be traced directly to the cynical workings of politics. The huge expansions of state university systems that took place in the '60s and '70s are explained not merely by the billions of federal dollars that were then available for higher education, but by the rivalries among regions within each state for influence and prestige -- rivalries upon which their political representatives were quick to feed. Many a bucolic institution that now calls itself a "university" does so by fiat of state legislators who could not distinguish between Descartes and a la carte but who have a highly sophisticated knowledge of the ways by which political capital is accumulated.

It is a pity that Fussell did not think to examine the relationship of higher education and politics. It's also unfortunate that he is as guilty of as great a snobbery as any of those who sport Yale or Vassar or Johns Hopkins decals on their Mercedes or BMWs or Volvos; he is too quick to dismiss the motives of all ambitious institutions as "preposterous affectations," and he clearly assumes that any institution located in a "backwater" is automatically beneath contempt. But he confronts the questions of cynicism, pretension and mediocrity in higher education with a most refreshing directness, and the fact of the matter is that in most regards he is absolutely right even as he is infuriatingly smug.