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The value of public universities
December 26, 2011 |
You've expounded on the value of public universities, how democratic they are and how they facilitate the bootstrap spirit of our nation. I live in the busy Northeast Corridor, and I'm now considering applying to one of the great American public universities.
But how do I justify this to all the Ivy League punks in this world? There seems to be a grain of truth that Ivy graduates run the country, and fill the most powerful roles in our society. I can hear their sneers, years in advance.
I'm a romantic idealist when it comes to education and I think college is supposed to be an enormous life-altering experience, not simply vocational training. It was enormous for me. At the private schools I've visited in the past few months, St. Olaf and Macalester and Drake, it was striking (to me) how cheerful and eager and enthusiastic the students were, and maybe that's an advantage of Ivy and other private schools, that they weed out the indifferent. On the other hand, when I've been at Harvard and Yale and Princeton, I only felt very lucky to have gone to the University of Minnesota. It was a huge land-grant university when I landed there in the fall of 1960, but I was terribly lucky to enroll in three terrific classes at the get-go, Latin Reading with Maggie Forbes, Composition: The Essay with Richard Cody, and American Politics with Asher Christiansen, three teachers still vivid to me all these years later. And I, who had vague literary ambitions, fell in right away with others who had big literary ambitions. And I went to work at the student radio station. So, within a few months, my life got set on its course, which is a sort of miracle. I came from a small town and the U of M was a bustling metropolis with large contingents of African, Indian, and Asian students and ambitious cultural programs. In my freshmen year, I became good friends with Barry Halper and Larry Leventhal and got to see Andres Segovia and the Royal Danish Ballet and the Cleveland Orchestra with George Szell and see a couple Shakespeare plays and see Robert Frost read, one amazement after another. I was at the U because I had no money and my high-school record was unimpressive and what I got from the U was a chance at a large life. And that's why I believe in public higher education.
But of course things have changed in fifty years. Tuition has risen ---- obscenely, I think ----- and commercial pop culture is more pervasive, which tends to dumb down the environment, and political correctness has eroded the classic curriculum, and the economy has made students more fearful and cautious than I remember being. But there's still an education out there for you, young man, and you don't need to justify your choice to anyone. Take your shot and make the most of your opportunities, whether you go to Harvard or Hermantown J.C. And have a big time.