The Corporate City or the Scholarly Enclave?
Mark Edmundson suggests a binary opposition in higher education between credential factories and true bastions of learning and do-gooder-ness. He takes the question of “Where should I go to college?” and seeks to answer it with, well, a strange series of presumptions, oversimplifications, and generalizations no less cheap and superficial than the ones he’s seemingly trying to criticize.
Edmundson speaks of the “good high school” without ever quite explaining what exactly he thinks it is, where it exists, and what might be some real world examples of it. Rather, the publicly funded credentialing machines remain abstractions created to describe a very specific mood that pervades the class and culture of a very specific group of people. They are the creatures of a David Brooks column, racing around to add extracurriculars to the resume and elbow for every additional percentage point on the GPA that they can.
These people exist, but more time and ink are devoted to them than is in any conceivable way proportional to how much they matter.
While it is true in a sense that most people who go to college attended “good high schools,” what’s even more true is how completely non-monolithic the qualities of these institutions, and the groups who attend them, are. In fact, if there’s one lesson that it seems we are too often ready to forget when it comes to education, it’s that experience is isolated to individuals, and that averaging together the aggregate subjectivities of hundreds, thousands, and millions of individuals can lead to artificial experiences and trends that represent no one–anywhere–ever.
But for all Edmundson’s railing against the corporatism (branding, sloganeering) and bureaucratic industrialism (grades, accolades, certificates) of higher education, his post does ultimately point at least to a method for answering the question it poses.
Though his classifications and labels are specious, he’s right when he says to look at the people who already go to these schools for guidance.
If my limited undergraduate experience has taught me anything, it’s that the schools themselves, the buildings and professors, programs and protocols, don’t vary nearly as much as the people to attend them.
What’s more so, trying to take the temperature of an entire student body will do little to nothing to tell you about the people you might actually end up spending 99% of your time around.
Penn State is a giant regional quasi-state school hidden away just north west of central Pennsylvania. It has “corporate city” written all over it, with signs advertising its many programs plastered on billboards and buses all around the state.
But like any large school, Penn State is divided into enclaves based around everything from athletics to particular fields of study to extracurriculars. You might go there because you’ve got a partial scholarship to sit on the bench during Saturday football games, or because you worked on the family farm all your life and want to bring it into the 21st century with a agricultural business degree, or maybe you had good grades and qualified for low interest student loans and just want to binge drink for six and a half years on borrowed time–it doesn’t matter, because Penn State, like most universities, has a place for you.
If YOU are wondering what college YOU should go to, don’t worry about corporate cities and scholarly enclaves, they are everywhere, and nowhere. Worry instead about who you are, what you want, and where you’re at in your own life.
What kind of people do you want to befriend?
How do you want to spend your Monday mornings and Saturday nights?
Are you driven by something, everything, or nothing?
Based on the answers to those questions you can begin trying to figure out which schools within your geographic and financial range make it easiest to facilitate those things.
Maybe you’re a drama kid for life, and want to pursue theater but on a small scale. One place has a great theater program, but does it have a vibrant and thriving drama scene outside of a couple cut-throat main stage productions?
Or you are a soulless (I jest!) business type who lives for poring over earnings reports and back-issues of the Harvard Business Review, and care more about the young entrepreneurs you might network with and the firms you can intern at than your projected starting salary after you graduate.
Or you’re a first-class dilettante who cares as much about a nearby coffeehouse where you can play with the band as you do about the number of inter-disciplinary programs listed in the academic catalogue.
Most schools will be able to facilitate these things to some degree, but not all of them will make it easy to find the people who can help to make it happen, including administrators, faculty, and most importantly: other students.
Travel to these places. Speak with the professors and activities coordinators, and ask them in turn to help put you in touch with other students who might understand what you’re looking for and whether school X is a worthwhile place to search for it.