Once in a while, it is just good to lift your head and . . . look around. So, below I offer a few tidbits that connect with the themes of Chicago is Our Campus, which I write as president of Shimer College.
First, everywhere you look when it comes to higher education right now, there are discussions of the decision of Sweet Briar College to close. A small, rural, women’s college in Virginia, that decision to close came as an abrupt surprise to many, including many close to Sweet Briar as students and alumnae. Sweet Briar is not alone, of course, given the turbulence in higher education, in facing significant financial challenges — and yet their closure may in fact signal more than “simple” financial concerns. Yes, the “business model” may be broken. Yes, there are concerns about affordability and accessibility of colleges. Yet, the strength of American higher education may not only be enhanced by increasing regulation by government and market. Here I comment on the wider significance of this particular loss to the ecology of higher education in the United States.
Second: there is much ongoing discussion of approaching commencements and their ritual significance — as is usual at this time of the academic year. Such talks mark the end of college (or other degrees) for many, and are a genre that combines platitudes with celebrity all too often. In recent years, the discussion of commencement has also come with come controversy as choices for speakers have . . . been . . . controversial. Nothing new there. Local colleges and universities are or have been announcing their speakers. The combination of nostalgia and bittersweet leavings multiply. I awoke this morning wondering what would happen if we could only invite dead people to give the talks; who would you invite and to what college might you invite them to speak? At the University of Chicago alone, there are enough dead alumni whose views might be worth reviewing that one could certainly ensure speakers for the next decades. At Shimer, we could invite people who populate our curriculum, right? We could invite the dead — and , thus fully embrace the emphasis on mortality that has characterized some recent well known commencement addresses such as those by Steve Jobs (discussed here) and Steven King (here).
Beyond the discussion of Sweet Briar and the forecasting of commencements to come, are the words of Fareed Zakaria defending liberal education (excerpted here) and Frank Bruni bemoaning the ways institutional prestige is rooted in denying as many applicants as possible to the college of their dreams, and driving a certain anxiety of influence in which people forget the point of education is. . . education. Bruni’s title, Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be is telling. (His work, perhaps, continues the ritualized calendaring of higher education — in his case the May 1, when admissions letters arrive and ostensibly “all” choose their college. That the May date is not the end date for those with rolling admissions seems worth ignoring for the sake of ritual; it is not worth ignoring if you are looking for the best fit for yourself or someone you know).
There is more, of course. Higher education sits at the nexus of necessity and idealism in the United States — and so it is the matter of endless rumination. What will its future be? Where will I go? What is education for? And more.