02 Aug 2022

The Ivory Tower vs. the World

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My residential college at Yale. A friend of mine used to remark ruefully that the rest of life constitutes a constant struggle to live as well as one did as an undergraduate at Yale.

Nick Burns agrees that our elite academic communities are out of touch and out of step with the rest of the country, and he thinks he can understand why.

I’d never been to Boulder, or visited the University of Colorado’s flagship campus there, but even from 30,000 feet, I could tell exactly where it started and ended. The red-tile roofs and quadrangles of the campus formed a little self-contained world, totally distinct from the grid of single-family homes that surrounded it.

In urban universities, the dividing line between the campus and the community can be even starker. At the University of Southern California, for example, students must check in with security officers when entering the gates of the university at night. At Yale, castle-like architecture makes the campus feel like a fortified enclave.

The elite American university today is a paradox: Even as concerns about social justice continue to preoccupy students and administrations, these universities often seem to be out of touch with the society they claim to care so much about. Many on the right and in the center believe universities have become ideological echo chambers. Some on the left see them as “sepulchers for radical thought.”

These critiques aren’t new — for generations people have thought of American universities as ivory towers, walled off from reality — but they’ve taken on new urgency as public debate over the state of higher education has intensified in recent years. Ideology and institutional culture get frequent attention, but a key factor is often ignored: geography.

The campus is a uniquely American invention. (The term originated in the late 1700s to describe Princeton.) Efforts to create separate environments for scholars came about at a time when elite American opinion was convinced that cities were hotbeds of moral corruption. Keeping students in rural areas and on self-contained campuses, it was thought, would protect their virtue.

Though such ideas have lost their appeal in recent years, to this day American universities are radically more isolated from their surrounding communities than their European counterparts are. And being situated around a strongly defined central campus, often featuring trademark Gothic-style architecture, remains a point of pride for elite American universities.

But what students and faculty gain in the enhanced sense of academic community that comes from campus life, they can lose in regular interaction with people who don’t dwell in the world of the academy. The campus, by design, restricts opportunities to encounter people from a wider range of professions, education levels and class backgrounds.

Of course, students like to spend time with other students, and scholars associate with other scholars. And that’s good for education and research. But there’s no need to enforce a geographical separation from society on top of it.

We all instinctively extrapolate insights from our own communities and day-to-day interactions, imagining they are true about the nation at large. Inevitably, that means our view of the country is a little distorted — but for those in the university, the distortions can be extreme. Stuck on campus, academics risk limiting their knowledge and toleration of a wider sweep of American society.

To put it another way, what’s most dangerous for the health of America’s intellectual elite is not that most professors have similar cultural tastes and similar liberal politics. That will probably always be the case. It’s that the campus setup makes it easy for them to forget that reasonable people often don’t share their outlook.

Student bodies and faculties have grown more diverse in recent decades, but that shouldn’t fool us into thinking elite universities have become microcosms of society: The highly educated are far more liberal than average Americans. The divide isn’t just political: Whatever their socioeconomic backgrounds, students and professors have daily routines that are very different from those of lawyers, shopkeepers or manual laborers — and that shapes their worldviews.

Life at a university with a dominant central campus can also narrow students’ views on the world, especially at colleges where most undergraduates live on campus. Letting the university take care of all of students’ needs — food, housing, health care, policing, punishing misbehavior — can be infantilizing for young adults. Worse, it warps students’ political thinking to eat food that simply materializes in front of them and live in residence halls that others keep clean.

It also takes away the chance to encounter people with different roles in society, from retail workers to landlords — interactions that would remind them they won’t be students forever and open questions about the social relevance of the ideas they encounter in the university.

RTWT

I think he overlooks the consideration that Academia offers a sheltered, highly privileged and prestigious, if financially modest, life style that is particularly appealing to neurotics, inverts, and perennially malcontent cranks.

The ability to churn out large quantities of verbiage is the key requirement, and it is the colorfulness, the outrageousness, the making a splash of some kind, not the qualities of soundness or wisdom, that command the greatest attention and rewards.

That is why catastrophist charlatans like Paul Erlich and complete loonies like Peter Singer wind up occupying endowed chairs in top universities and showered with honors.

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2 Feedbacks on "The Ivory Tower vs. the World"

gwbnyc

**if financially modest, life style**

yet, perks.



JK Brown

Percy Marks, about the time he was forced out of Dartmouth for his racy expose´of college life, ‘The Plastic Age’ wrote “Under Glass”, Scribner’s Magazine Vol 73, 1923, p 47. The college campus was a “hothouse” that force the minds to bloom earlier. Sadly the modern campus produces hothouse flowers the wilt when faced with the cold, harsh reality of life outside the ‘walls’.

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“The idea is, of course, that men are successful because they have gone to college. No idea was ever more absurd. No man is successful because he has managed to pass a certain number of courses and has received a sheepskin which tells the world in Latin, that neither the world nor the graduate can read, that he has successfully completed the work required. If the man is successful, it is because he has the qualities for success in him; the college “education” has merely, speaking in terms’ of horticulture, forced those qualities and given him certain intellectual tools with which to work—tools which he could have got without going to college, but not nearly so quickly. So far as anything practical is concerned, a college is simply an intellectual hothouse. For four years the mind of the undergraduate is put “under glass,” and a very warm and constant sunshine is poured down upon it. The result is, of course, that his mind blooms earlier than it would in the much cooler intellectual atmosphere of the business world.

“A man learns more about business in the first six months after his graduation than he does in his whole four years of college. But—and here is the “practical” result of his college work—he learns far more in those six months than if he had not gone to college. He has been trained to learn, and that, to all intents and purposes, is all the training he has received. To say that he has been trained to think is to say essentially that he has been trained to learn, but remember that it is impossible to teach a man to think. The power to think must be inherently his. All that the teacher can do is help him learn to order his thoughts—such as they are. ”

https://archive.org/details/scribnersmag73editmiss/page/44/mode/1up?view=theater

And we have this from the father of modern education

“Man must seek his chief instruction in his chief work, and not allow the empty teaching of the head to precede the labor of the hand. * * * We have to thank the nonsense with which our children’s early years are diverted from labor and directed toward books, for a world full of blockheads.”
[Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, (1746-1827)]

Unfortunately, even MIT seems to have abandoned training both the Mind and Hand their motto proclaims.



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