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Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Here is the last part of my extended essay on the ideal college. To read the entire essay, click on the following link:


The college will be organized into four Houses, each with a separate complex of small buildings around an inner quadrangle [very Oxbridge, of course, but why reinvent good ideas?] Each House will be home to 150 students, and several of the fifteen faculty associated with it. The faculty, of many different fields, will constitute a Senior Common Room. They will be collectively responsible for all of the administrative decisions and actions that the students may need. The entire faculty of the college will act as a Curriculum Committee, choosing what courses to offer, and in what sequence. They will also act as a Personnel Committee, making decisions about hiring and tenure. [Yes, the faculty will have, or be able to earn, tenure. And of they choose, they can unionize, although it is not clear against whom they will strike, should they decide to withhold their labor.] The President of the college will rotate membership in each of the four Senior Common Rooms.

The student rooms will be arranged into suites, each of which will be home to three, four, or five students. Each suite will have a small common room and a bathroom. Every student will have an individual small room, the door of which, suitably soundproofed, can be closed to provide privacy. The underlying assumption of the physical arrangement is that each student will spend most of his or her time studying.

Each House will have a dining room and kitchen facilities, where students will take the meals that some of their own number prepare. The dining room will double as an assembly room, and will be fitted out with all the latest audio and video accoutrements. It will serve as a venue for House meetings, public lectures, and the like.

There will be no intercollegiate sports at the college, and no coaches or trainers. The college will have some facilities for pick-up sports activities – a playing field with a running track, perhaps, maybe even a pool. But the entire focus of the college will be on the life of the mind. Students will of course be free to form whatever organizations they choose, but they will do so on their own, without encouragement or discouragement, or any financial support, from the college.

The academic year will be organized into two fifteen week semesters, in the customary manner, with the usual holidays and breaks. Since I expect that some of the students will be very poor, the college will try to remain open throughout the entire year, at least on a skeleton basis, so that students who need to, or who wish to, can spend all of their time on campus. If a sufficient number of students are interested, the college will conduct intensive summer study sessions during which students can delve ever deeper into the subjects that interest them.

One important point concerning grades, not mentioned earlier. There will be no such thing as flunking out at this college. Some students may decide to leave, having discovered that unrelenting study is not in fact what they are seeking. But once the college collectively decides that a young man or woman has the calling, and he or she is welcomed into the community, the faculty and the students will have a commitment to that young person and will do everything possible to make the four years at the college valuable and rewarding. We will be demanding and rigorous, always holding the student to a higher standard, but there will come no time at which the faculty sit in judgment on the student and vote In or Out, Pass or Fail. In this way, as much as in any other, the college will be more like a religious order than a school.

I think it can be taken for granted that the academic performance of the students will be such as to merit a Bachelor’s Degree after four years of such rigorous and intensive study. I anticipate that graduate and professional schools will compete for them, should they choose a career path that requires their certification.

How will the faculty be recruited, and what sorts of academics will we be looking for? The simple answer is this: the instructors must have the same commitment to the life of the mind that we demand of the students, and they must themselves be so gifted, so brilliant, that they are capable of teaching the sorts of students we shall be recruiting. They must be as devoted to teaching as the students are to learning, and they must have a capacity for experiencing and, in their own way, expressing the love for one’s students that lies at the core of all great teaching. [Here I will simply make reference to Paul Goodman’s two great extended essays, COMPULSORY MIS-EDUCATION and THE COMMUNITY OF SCHOLARS.]

What sort of person will we seek as President? The first, and absolutely non-negotiable requirement is that the President must be a scholar of such power and distinction that he or she will be recognized as pre-eminent in any gathering of scholars, regardless of titles or administrative position. This is of course not now the custom in the American higher education community. The norm is for some failed academic, who recognizes early on that he or she is not really going anywhere academically, to shift over to the administrative track. A Department Chairmanship, then perhaps an Associate Deanship, followed by a Provostship then a Chancellorship, all the while moving from institution to institution – what Robert Michels long ago, in a somewhat different context, called “the circulation of elites.” The result is a University President who, stripped of his title, would scarcely be noticed in a Senior Common Room. The exceptions are notable – Robert Maynard Hutchins at Chicago, James Byrant Conant at Harvard, even, in his odd way, Leon Bottstein at Bard.

Well, there you have it, at least in sketchy outline – my utopian fantasy of the ideal college. Is such a place even possible? Well, my big sister, Barbara, reading an earlier portion of this essay, remarked that the academic side of it sounded to her much like the Swarthmore College that she attended from ’48 to ’52. As I said when I began, I conceive the college as sort of co-ed monastery, with sex, and monasteries of some sort have a long, distinguished history.

Will such a college ever come into existence? Not unless a dot com billionaire [if any have survived the crash] reads these posts and decides to throw several hundred million into the pot.

What value is there, then, in the fantasy? Here I stand with the Utopian Socialists against Engels’ mocking criticism. The value of this fantasy, or Ideal Type, is that it allows us to clarify certain principles underlying an activity in which we are engaged, but whose roots we have not really examined. What follows are a few conclusions I draw from the fantasy:

First: The two central and indispensable features of the college are that it is a genuine cooperative community, in which the members of the community themselves perform the labor required to sustain the community, and that there is no fee imposed on some, but not on others, for participation in the community. These two conditions, taken together, will communicate and instill the underlying ideological orientation far better than any forced indoctrination of principles. Those who work together cooperatively in such a community come to understand that they are part of a shared enterprise. There is no class of persons who are, in Orwell’s immortal words, “more equal than others.”

Second: Critique is essential to education; certification and ranking are irrelevant to education.

Third: Once a student is admitted to the community of the college, everyone is committed to helping that student to develop intellectually. There is no flunking out, nor is there any graduating with honors, just four years of intense cultivation of the life of the mind.

Finally: The closer we can come to embodying the principles of this ideal college in our actual educational enterprises, the more perfectly will we serve out students. Perhaps we may even succeed in inspiring a few of them with the same vision, which they in turn can pass on to their students. When all is said and done, it is the vision underlying and inspiring this fantasy that gives value to our careers as teachers and scholars.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Would "critique" of the student's performance, with the goal of "perfection" (from the fourth post), include a critique of the source work in question? Here I am using the term "critique" like Marx, in "Critique of Political Economy", or like Mannheim, in "Ideology and Utopia". Or is the form of the institution sufficient for encouraging debate and questioning of source materials?