Campus progress 101

Liam Julian

It was big news when, a couple of weeks ago, the interests of Harvard University's Public Relations department aligned with the interests of its Noblesse Oblige department, and did so without apparently discomfiting its departments of Admissions and Finance. The nation's highest profile institution of higher education unilaterally decreed that it was ending early admissions, a policy it now considers an offensive relic--unfair, elitist, and most likely racist, too. Upon hearing the news, Princeton tagged along.

Surely pundits can--and have and will--debate the merits of doing away with early admissions. What hardly anybody debates, however, is whether such concerns should really be the focus of higher education.

Front pages were splashed with the news: elite university strives to demonstrate its social progressiveness. Nowadays, it seems, universities are keener to position themselves as combatants in the nation's culture wars than to educate students.

Look at the headlines. When colleges are prominently featured, it's nearly always because they're intricately entangled in some social struggle (whether or not to admit a Taliban official as a student, whether or not to allow army recruiters on law school campuses, which offending corporation or nation to divest themselves of, etc.).

Sometimes those struggles have merit; sometimes they don't. But why do so few people find it odd that universities--where students go ostensibly to learn important things and refine their core intellectual skills--have evolved into pricey equivalents of nineteenth century Parisian cafés?

Les Deux Magots is a swell place, but colleges are not supposed to be smoky dens of angst; at bottom, they're schools. Yet many of our "best universities," when judged as schools (that is, on whether or not their students are learning) actually turn out to be pretty crummy (see here). And, what's more, university administrators seem quite unwilling to do much about it.

None of which is to say that scrapping early admissions at prestigious universities is a bad thing. But it's a question of priority between trying to make colleges look better or actually making them better. It's also a question of whether Americans will demand from their higher education establishments that which they unquestionably expect from the K-12 public schools: that students learn something of value between September and June.

Thankfully, in the K-12 system, schools are finally being judged by how well they impart skills and knowledge to their students. That's good, because the easiest way to empower the masses is by educating them. By teaching young people to read critically; to write cogently, coherently, and with purpose and panache; to understand Plato, Shakespeare, and the fellows who wrote wisely about them; and to find Mongolia on a globe.

If our universities were serious about effecting positive social change, they would follow suit (there may yet be hope). That's the truly progressive approach.