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.
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.