Wilfred M. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship chair in the history of liberty at the University of Oklahoma.
Is it time to retire the classic ideal of the four-year, residential university? Is our notion of “college” — complete with leafy campuses, crisp autumn football weekends and resplendent commencement addresses — hopelessly outdated? Could it be possible that, after becoming a near-universal rite of passage for middle-class Americans, the classic collegiate experience is an obsolete relic — or at least, an unaffordable model that no longer serves our needs?
Many intelligent observers answer “yes” to these questions. And they may be right. There is no doubt that the current system is financially unsustainable for a great number of people. There are plenty of reasons to doubt whether our colleges and universities — even the most selective ones — can consistently deliver what they promise. There’s also plenty of reason to wonder if they have become little more than social sorting mechanisms, rather than bastions of higher learning. The oft-invoked promise of higher lifetime earnings for college graduates rings hollow in the ears of underemployed and debt-burdened millennials who have had trouble launching careers in the past decade’s stagnant economy.
Yet we should not forget that one of the unique features of American higher education is its incomparable institutional diversity. That diversity is its greatest strength, and we should do everything that we can to preserve and enhance it. Nowhere else in the world can we find so many kinds of colleges — large and small, public and private, nonprofit and for-profit, secular and religious, single-sex colleges, colleges serving primarily black or Native American populations — all occupying various places in the spectrum between research and teaching. This astounding range is an immense cultural resource, yet we so often take it for granted.
Sociologist David Riesman once argued that the structure of American higher education resembles a snake, with the Ivies and a small group of selective colleges at the head, setting the direction for the rest of the body. But as he himself later acknowledged, that image could not have been more wrong, and it is imperative that we disenthrall ourselves from it. Our diversity means that institutions can and should be willing to occupy distinctive missions, focusing their energies in terms of those niches.
Institutional diversity in that regard is similar to ecological diversity, which requires the protection of a diversity of species, rather than individual organisms. We will be better off — especially in an era of transition and uncertainty — with the broadest range of institutions possible, since each is a possible answer to the questions that beset us.
This will mean a fresh commitment to experimentation. Just as Americans have always been open to Utopian experiments in living, ranging from the Puritan colonies of early New England to the hippie communes of the ’60s, so too have we frequently tried out fresh — even radical — approaches to schooling. In the digital age, it is clearly time for another such burst of experimental energy. We should do everything we can to encourage educational entrepreneurship and the blooming of a thousand new institutional flowers, rather than trying to regulate and standardize our way to educational quality.
This will not result in the apocalypse. It is very likely that certain features of traditional colleges will remain unchanged in many places. But that will be true only if those institutions give a better accounting of themselves than they now do, rather than trading on their fading cultural capital while frenetically building their endowments. They must be prepared to give a fresh and compelling defense of their mission, directed at an increasingly skeptical public.
And we all must be open to radical experimentation. The liberal arts, we are told, are essential to the practice of citizenship. But why? And why must a college devoted to them be residential in character? Can the liberal arts flourish without the financial burdens of maintaining that leafy campus and all the other features that have always gone with their being housed in residential institutions? If we dispense with the sentimental idea that college should be a four-year Wanderjahr for youth, can we have greater success in achieving the learning outcomes we want from it?
The answer to that last question is almost certainly “yes.” But we will not know for sure until we can be clearer about what the liberal arts are, a question to which only a handful of our current academic leaders — who are otherwise preoccupied with raising funds to keep their ships afloat — have anything cogent to say. We will need greater clarity about our goals, and greater openness to institutional experimentation as a means of achieving them, to have the answer to that question.