On past Fourths of July I’ve blogged about things like visiting Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest or watching balloons rise grandly over the Blue Ridge. This year, the holiday brought reflections about how our nation gave rise to a distinctively American form of higher education — the residential liberal arts college.
If you’re interested in this topic, I can recommend a couple of books: neither is new, but both have lots of interesting information and perspective to offer. Frederick Rudolph’s The American College and University: A History and Koblick and Graubard’s Distinctively American: The Residential Liberal Arts Colleges together draw a picture of the history of higher education in America and the specific issues facing liberal arts colleges along the way and in the present.
This history is fascinating. As what became the United States was established and expanded, people arrived in new areas and planted communities. Often, one of the early aspirations of a young community was to establish a college. There were lots of reasons for this — often, ethnic, religious, or cultural communities wanted colleges of their own to preserve and pass on their values to their youth. Civic leaders wanted colleges to attract educated citizens and to represent a town’s status as a center of cultural and intellectual life. And of course, the community wanted a source for “teachers and preachers” to serve its citizens. And so, across the country, small private colleges sprang up as waves of internal migration pushed across the continent.
As a result of this history, the United States has an enormous variety of privately-founded and supported colleges and universities. This patchwork exists alongside the more intentionally planned and coordinated state systems of higher education. Public and private institutions both complement and compete with one another.
The “distinctively American” liberal arts colleges continue to exist because significant numbers of people identify with them and support them. In many cases they now serve communities much larger than those that founded them — denominational institutions accept students from all faiths, for example — while retaining distinctive cultures and values that derive from their foundings. No other nation has developed an educational sector quite like this, although many are making dedicated efforts to replicate some of its advantages.
There is of course a down side to the American approach. Our “system” of higher education is not really a system. There is no federal, centralized planning or control (although there is much debate about whether there should be). Students and families face real challenges as they try to compare various public and private options: curriculum is described in varying terms, requirements vary from institution to institution, costs are not easy to compare, and sorting through the options in a crowded educational marketplace is no easy task.
Still, on the Fourth of July, looking out over Sweet Briar’s spectacular campus and thinking about the education we provide here, I had to celebrate the American spirit of self-reliance, philanthropy, community identity, and educational aspiration that resulted in a new and distinctive educational sector — one in which I’ve spent my entire career, because I believe it offer unmatched opportunities for students.