I’ve been thinking a lot about where my son should apply to college (all applications must be completed by January 1, and some of them will take him a long time to fill out—especially the dozens of application essays). So I was interested in articles like Mark Edmundson’s in The Atlantic, ‘Where Should I Go to College?’. He starts out with a good framing question:
Where should you go to college—assuming you’re a high school student and getting ready for this new phase of your life? Where should you encourage your son or daughter to go—assuming that you’re a parent? As a college professor, I get asked the where-to-go question frequently, and I know that all of us teaching in colleges and universities do too. How should one answer? What is the right thing to say to someone deciding on his or her future? For myself, I’m inclined to respond by posing another question.
Are you looking for a corporate city, or are you looking for a scholarly enclave? Neither of these kinds of schools exists in its pure form. To the scholarly enclave, even the most ideal, there will always be a practical, businessy dimension. Somebody’s got to keep the books and pay the bills. And even in the most corporate of colleges, there will be islands of relative scholarly idealism.
The article goes on in great detail about the corporate/idealism axis that he sees as the most relevant one for students choosing a college. But he sees the distinction as almost synonymous with an engineering/humanities axis, which I don’t agree with—I know engineers and engineering professors who are very idealistic, who went into engineering with the hope that they could improve the world by solving some of the problems facing us. The word “entrepreneurship” is a dirty work to Edmundson, but he has apparently not heard of “social entrepreneurship”, which attempts to use the high energy and adrenaline of start-up culture to do good, instead of to make piles of money.
His description of the “corporate university” does remind me of some colleges, where faculty and students alike seem to be always looking for fame and fortune (and fame is just as potent a driving force as fortune). There are some faculty and students like that even in the most scholarly places, though the faculty usually job-hop out within a few years. But being laid-back and not interested in the corporate rat race are not the same thing as being scholarly. There are plenty of places where students and faculty wander around rather aimlessly, just going through the motions of a scholarly life without the trouble of doing any original thinking. (Watch out for tour guides that talk mainly about the sports teams—a place that regards tailgate parties as the high point of college life is not likely to be scholarly.)
There is a quality axis that is orthogonal to the corporate/idealism axis. Some schools strive for very high quality in teaching and research, independent of the uses that the students will put the skills to. Such places may end up anywhere along Edmundson’s corporate/idealism axis, though he equates the corporate end of his axis with a disdain for learning: “Students still study. But in the old high school tradition, you study only as much as you need to study to get your A’s. If expedient but slightly shady means of A-getting arise, you may even evaluate them using a risk-reward equation.” There is some truth to what he says—that attending college for monetary goals is often in conflict with scholarly goals, but the “only as much as you need to study” attitude seems to be more prevalent in the humanities than in engineering, even though many students go into engineering in search of high-paying jobs. (His description seems spot-on for business majors, though, who epitomize the corporate-university mindset, and who seem to be at the center of many cheating scandals.)
Even the most corporate of universities come in different flavors, with some preparing students to be cogs in existing corporations, while others are preparing entrepreneurs to start new ventures. Those different goals require very different education and different psychological mindsets from the students. A risk-averse student may be very poorly served by an entrepreneurial approach, where the rewards are often more the adrenaline rush of high-stakes gambling than a high median return. Similarly, a serial entrepreneur might be poorly served by a college that prepared them for a slow slog up a corporate ladder.
Larger schools can support both a corporate culture and a scholarly culture on the same campus—which aspect of the college you see depends on where you look and who you hang out with. Places like MIT and Stanford come to mind. Smaller schools may have a more monolithic culture, and figuring out where it fits along Edmundson’s corporate/idealistic axis may be as important as figuring out where it is on the quality axis.