In all the hullabaloo about higher education that of late has stirred up so much emotion, one detail seems to have gone largely unremarked. The principal subjects of discussion have been the country's large colleges and universities, especially those of the publicly supported variety that have expanded so extravagantly in the years since World War II. There has been, by contrast, relatively little discussion of the country's small colleges, yet they have a good deal to say to us about the matters at hand.
This thought crossed my mind during the past couple of weeks as I spent some time, though hardly as much as I would have liked, at Albion College in Michigan and Mount St. Mary's College in Maryland. Both are private schools with enrollments of about 1,700; both were founded under church affiliation but no longer impose rigid religious requirements on their students; both charge tuition and fees that, though reasonable by comparison with the Ivy League, would be forbidding to many prospective students; both are located in attractive but rather rural and isolated settings.
Both, in other words, are atypical of the colleges and universities in which most American students find themselves, and no attempt will be made here to suggest that they provide, for most students, a realistic alternative to larger and less expensive institutions. But to the visitor who has been immersed in the problems of big-time higher education, they provide a refreshing and instructive contrast. Where the large schools seem more and more preoccupied with perpetuating the professoriate and its various support systems, the small ones actually seem to be concentrating on giving their students something that passes for an education.
In some, if not all, respects, the best thing about small colleges is that they are small. Low enrollments and tight budgets discourage, if not prohibit, the expansion of departments beyond the number of professors needed to teach the required and elective courses. What this means is that professors are expected to devote themselves to the classroom and its inhabitants rather than to the careerist projects through which reputations too often are made in the larger, ostensibly more prestigious institutions. It is neither simplification nor sentimentalization to say that at the small colleges more often than not the students come first.
Not only that, but they are offered an education that is stripped of much of the frivolity so widespread elsewhere. No doubt the small colleges have managed to come up with their full share of courses catering to either the laziness of students or the vanity of professors, but there simply is not room in them for the unchecked proliferation of academic busywork. Thus the English departments actually teach literature, and attempt to imbue in their students some appreciation for and understanding of it; at many of the big schools, by contrast, the English departments are turning into assembly lines for the manufacture of academic "critics" for few of whom, cruelly enough, there will be teaching jobs in academia -- the only jobs for which they have been trained -- since the professors who taught them have tenured the market all to themselves.
In the liberal arts, at least, the small colleges seem considerably more connected to the world's realities than are the large ones; there is little room in them for departments or programs that do not suit the actual needs of their students. At Mount St. Mary's, for example, there is a writing program, but it is hardly what anyone having an acquaintance with writing programs elsewhere would be led to expect. Yes, it is possible to write short stories and poetry at Mount St. Mary's and have them read by a member of the staff, but "creative writing" is not the program's preoccupation. Rather, it exists to train students in the clear expository writing that will almost certainly be expected of them in whatever careers they choose to pursue. No major in writing is offered; writing is viewed, as it should be, as a necessary corollary to a major in the arts and sciences, rather than an academic end in and of itself.
The small colleges simply aren't in the business of producing "critics" for whom there are no academic feather beds or "writers" who will go forever unpublished. If nothing else, economic realities force them to design -- and constantly to redesign -- curricula to which their students will respond positively. In small colleges, if student demand for a specific course or even a specific major withers away, then the course or major will be discontinued. This causes unpleasant disruptions, needless to say, and it has caused some legal action over the right of colleges to dismiss tenured professors, but it keeps the colleges on their toes.
This coming to terms with reality does have its pitfalls, chief among which is the temptation to offer trendy courses of study while abandoning traditional ones. Thus some of the small colleges have rushed eagerly into instruction in the use of computers and other technological marvels, perceiving this as a way to attract students. Such policies may prove, in the long run, penny-wise and pound-foolish. But there is little evidence that many of these schools are abandoning the core arts-and-sciences curriculum in order to suit the passing fancy; they seem committed to offering strong education, both basic and rounded, as their primary attraction.
They are not perfect, of course, and the admission had best be made: The principal trouble with small colleges is that, well, they are small. In the specific instances of Albion and Mount St. Mary's, campus life may well be full and free; but it is often the case that small colleges turn so obsessively inward that the atmosphere becomes positively incestuous. A small college is a very small world, and the tendency for it to become utterly preoccupied with itself is exceedingly difficult to resist. The results can be most disagreeable: bitter rivalries among the faculty that invariably descend from the professional to the personal, divisions within the student body among cliques and coteries of various persuasions, fierce resentment against administrators who must make the hard decisions the aforementioned economic realities dictate. Small may be beautiful, but it can be ugly as well.
That, though, is not the point; responsible people at small colleges are fully aware of their potential shortcomings, which is why, among other things, many teachers and administrators live a healthy distance from the campuses where they work. The point, rather, is that in some important respects the small colleges seem more connected with the real business of education than the larger ones, too many of which have gotten too big for their own -- not to mention their students' -- good. As the country tries to figure out what has gone wrong with higher education and how it can be fixed, the example these colleges set deserves closer attention than it has thus far gotten.