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The trinity in the American university story

analysis Updated: Sep 11, 2016 22:04 IST
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Education historian David Labaree points out that the origins of the American university system were humble, parochial, and deeply local, unlike the universal and cosmopolitan ambitions of the European university. (Reuters Photo)

Recent rankings of universities around the world re-affirm a truth already well-known: That American universities not only occupy the largest share of highly-ranked institutions, but that share gets progressively larger the closer one moves to the top. Thus, in the rankings done by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, 144 of the top 500 universities in the world are American, but so are 53 of the top 100, 35 of the top 50, 16 of the top 20, and eight of the top 10.

But the pyramidal dominance of US institutions limits the truth. Global rankings of universities, which privileges research-intensive institutions, cloud the remarkable range that characterises not only the American educational system, but also that of the very research university it privileges. As nations worldwide, most emphatically now in Asia, seek to recreate the American model, often with significant success, this often-forgotten history behind its unique constellation of strengths needs to be kept in mind.

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Undeniably, the economic and political might of the US, combined with the ascendancy of English as the world language, has bolstered the superiority of American universities. But its strength alone does not explain the strength of its universities. The unique success of the American research university hides the strange history of the development of a deeply contradictory set of forces.

Education historian David Labaree classifies these forces as follows: The practical, the populist, and the elite. He points out that the origins of the American university system were humble, parochial, and deeply local, unlike the universal and cosmopolitan ambitions of the European university. “The American college in the nineteenth century,” he writes, “was a hometown entity.” In a land of multiple and competing church denominations, founding a college was an effective way to “plant the flag and promote the faith.” Likewise, a college was a solid claim for a sleepy country town to get on the map so that it could demand a railway stop, the county seat, or even the state capital, and in turn, to raise the value of local real estate.

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If you’ve ever wondered why just about every small town in Ohio has a college or even a university, there’s your answer. Indeed, they are scattered nationwide. Their founding history continues to live in their deep community engagement — manifested most strikingly through their commitment to collegiate sports and local alumni support — that remains hard to match anywhere else in the world. Behind the global brand of US universities, it is easy to forget, lies this powerful parochial support, which continues to bolster most of them, from small community colleges all the way to those in the Ivy League.

The practical function of the college is closely linked to its parochial identity. The clearest embodiment of this function is the land-grant college, set up on federally controlled plots of land by the Morill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890. With their focus on agricultural and technical education, these institutions sought to balance the traditional focus of church-founded institutions on the classical liberal arts with training that sought to address everyday problems of the local community. Locally realised practical functions salvaged the colleges from potential accusations of elitism. As Larabee says, the message could now be: “This is your college, working for you. We produce the engineers who design your bridges, the teachers who teach your children, and the farmers who produce your food.”

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Clark Kerr, the legendary president of the University of California, identified the three institutions which converged to make the modern American university: The British undergraduate college, the German research university, and the American land-grant college. If the land-grant college embodied the institution’s practical value to the local community, the undergraduate college experience provided its populist element. Think fraternities, Greek life, football, and pastoral care-driven pedagogy and residential life. At the same time, the plenitude of affordable, locally founded colleges throughout the nation salvaged the American undergraduate experience from Oxbridge-style elitism, the original venue of this student experience.

The advent of the German research university model in the US in the 1880s provided the final element — the elite value of high scientific and philosophical research. Johns Hopkins was the first institution to adopt the model of the university as a venue of new, fundamental research consolidated by Wilhelm von Humboldt at the reformed University of Berlin. Other institutions quickly followed the path. The parochial, locally-sponsored institution finally attained a cosmopolitan stature and a global reputation.

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It is the elite appeal of fundamental research coming out of the American university that appears to drive its global reputation, pushing it up the ranking charts worldwide. Less conspicuous to the world is its powerful network of populist and parochial support that has retained it as a venue of civic pride and deep-rooted community support. Such are the forces that have sustained it through periods of skyrocketing tuition, somewhat, so far.

Emerging as local, community-supported institutions at a time when the State was weak and the market strong, the American university survived a harsh world, lacking the lavish State support that bolstered its European counterparts. The Darwinian tale of its survival has shaped a formidable combination of contradictory strengths — the populist, the practical, and the elite, that keep one another in check as well as bolster the system collectively. As institutions worldwide seek to emulate the American university, they would do well to keep in mind the powers of this unlikely trinity.

Saikat Majumdar is professor of English and creative writing, Ashoka University, and author of The Firebird.

The views expressed are personal.