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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. To receive an occasional digest of this news please add your name to the monthly Collegiate Way mailing list.

Collegiate Reading Recommendations

— The Harvard College from which John Adams graduated in 1755 had about 100 students. The College of William & Mary that Thomas Jefferson entered five years later was about the same size.

Do you need a big university to produce big men? Certainly not. In fact, one might argue the reverse. “Character and self-reliance are more developed by being a man of mark in Ravenna than by belonging to the mob in Rome,” wrote Harvard’s Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who had concluded by 1900 that John Adams’s small college had already grown so large, with nearly 2000 students, that it needed to be divided up if it was to remain effective.

On this Fourth of July—American Independence Day—as summer begins in earnest in the northern hemisphere, let me suggest a few readings for friends of the Collegiate Way, readings that will remind us of the value and virtues of small college life. Some of these readings are narrowly focused on the residential college idea itself, while others are broader commentaries on the principles that guide (or oppose) the residential college movement.

Donald Markwell’s A Large and Liberal Education. Don Markwell was for several years the Warden of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, and this volume brings together a number of his essays on higher education, university administration, residential colleges, and academic life. “There are those who think that new information and communication technologies will make the campus university redundant, and presumably residential colleges also,” writes Markwell. “While we aim to use such new technologies in helping our students, and to enable them to use the technologies as well as possible, it seems clear to me that the high degree of personal interaction – student with tutor, and student with student – that a college involves will always be of immense benefit to students.” The volume is available direct from Trinity College as well as from online book dealers.

Mark Ryan’s A Collegiate Way of Living: Residential Colleges and a Yale Education. Mark Ryan’s collection of essays on residential college life was first published in 2001, but last year the complete text became available online for the first time as a finely-produced pdf document. Put a new packet of paper in your printer and make yourself a hard copy to take to the beach or to set beside your backyard chair this summer.

Lindsey Shaw-Miller’s Clare Through the Twentieth Century: Portrait of a Cambridge College. Every student of higher education should have at least one representative volume on the history of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and this recent Clare College anthology would make a fine selection. It’s a scholarly coffee-table book: beautifully produced in a large format, and at the same time packed with interesting accounts of Cambridge collegiate life by a variety of authors. It even includes a specially-produced compact disc of Clare College music. Every residential college should have the good fortune to be so lovingly chronicled.

James Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. This is a tremendously important study of the bureaucratic worldview of the last hundred years. As industrial nation-states grew, Scott argues, so did their fascination with benevolent central planning and progressive “scientific” management. But remote planning and management on a massive scale inevitably collapses the meaningful details of individual human lives into meaningless statistics. How is this relevant to the seemingly narrow concerns of residential college life? Because the same “high modernist” mindset that gave us inhumane government planning bureaucracies also gave us centralized state university systems, barren industrial dormitory districts, and a professionalized training apparatus within which “higher education administration” is imagined to be a necessary and certifiable specialty.

David Labaree’s The Trouble With Ed Schools. The primary educational manifestation of the high modernist ideology that James Scott describes in Seeing Like a State is the university-level School of Education. Emerging in the early twentieth century in response to the need to manufacture large numbers of public school teachers (and public school administrators), university-level Schools of Education embraced wholeheartedly the hierarchical, expert-controlled, efficiency-minded, science-envying, “progressive” worldview of their birth-era. David Labaree gives us a portrait of that worldview and how it has played itself out in both higher education and in the public schools. University-level administrative categories such as “student affairs” are outgrowths of School-of-Education culture, and we must examine the history of those categories if we are to understand many of the administrative assumptions that are made in large universities today.

Jonathan Zimmerman’s Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory. This is a brand new book that I have not yet seen myself, but I add it to my list of recommendations on the strength of a recent Wall Street Journal review by Bill Kauffman. “Decades after consolidation had obliterated one-room schools,” writes Kauffman, “researchers discovered their advantages. The child in the small school is not just a statistic on a government chart. She receives ‘individual attention and recognition.’ She works at her own pace. She has, most important, a place. As Mr. Zimmerman remarks, recent alternatives to ‘the large, alienating modern school,’ from charter schools to homeschooling, have sought to foster ‘the snug, communal aspects of the one-room school.’” The Collegiate Way’s alternative to the large, alienating modern university seeks to do the same thing: to foster the snug, communal aspects of residential college life—a way of life Adams and Jefferson benefited from in their day, and that students in our day deserve to benefit from as well.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014