26 July 2010

The Idea of a Midwestern University

I am spending the summer in Ann Arbor. This may be the best, or at least the second-best, summer of my adult life. I am taking classes, but will not be graded. I am reading, but at my own direction. I am cloistered, but part of a community. I am, in short, having the experience that I thought that grad school proper would be like: private, intense, and liberating.

One reason for my contentment is the setting. It has been seven years since I spent time in one of the large Midwestern universities, and I realize now how much I had missed the environment. The urban campus I attend now has its brief moments of beauty, but they are pockets amidst a jumbled campus whose architectural incoherence is testament to the poor financial planning of previous generations of administrators. It took a lot for universities to miss out on WPA funds for new construction, but somehow the old priests managed the trick. Their successors during the Cold War failed to acquire the American talent for wealth creation but learned architecture from the Soviets. At least they had the good fortune to have inherited a stately nineteenth-century quadrangle; in Dublin, at John Newman's university, the new campus in the suburbs was built from the ground up by Brutalists.

I spent my undergraduate days in Bloomington, which has a gorgeous campus built from limestone and brick and adorned by a creek that sustains a series of gardens. I am partial to IU for many reasons, but the architecture is one of them. It is not so much that the buildings are beautiful in themselves--some are, others (Geology) are forgettable--as the fact that they manage to express the ideals of the Midwestern university in concrete (and limestone) form. There is something elevating, something intentionally profound, in the buildings that reflects a deeper set of concerns about how knowledge should be regarded and disseminated in the context of a democracy. Those same ideals animate the spirit of the Michigan campus.

University campuses are normally nice places, except for commuter campuses, which are soul-destroying, but there is something distinct about the grand public colleges of the Midwest. Usually, the architecture is formal without being grand, and dignified without being overbearing. Even the more modernist experiments appear as if their purpose is to demonstrate a different way of approaching the world, instead of fomenting a cultural revolution.

The openness and lack of pretension of these universities' architecture is in keeping with their pioneer roots. Frederick Jackson Turner discussed the peculiar relation of Midwestern universities to their state governments and to their people. One of the oddest outgrowths of Jacksonian democracy (taking the term loosely to include the general move toward more egalitarian and distributive roles for government) was the focus on public education. Schooling was felt to be essential for the creation of a self-governing public. Consequently, the public demanded that the government create the institutions whereby backwoodsmen could aspire to statecraft. Had Lincoln lived a generation later, he would not have had to read books while plowing, but could have done so in a one-room school funded by the sale of public lands. And the Lincoln administration itself sponsored the land-grant colleges.

As Turner writes, these universities were a departure from their ascetic and cloistered eastern and European predecessors. Their purposes were immediate, practical, and democratic. They were not meant to train clerics or philosophers, but lawyers, engineers, farmers, and teachers. In so doing they might forego the grandest accomplishments of intellectual accomplishment, but they would create a far more educated populace than had ever existed before. And in the end the Midwestern schools were hardly embarrassed by the breadth of their mission. (If you're reading this on a Web browser, thank the University of Illinois.)

I have always been a bit more impressed by this view of a university's purpose. I am generally more sympathetic to the notion that public facilities ought to be managed for excellence, and I am generally opposed to private schooling at every level. The manifest failure of the public schools long ago forced me to abandon any hope of fixing them in this lifetime, but even then my preferred solution--charters and vouchers--aim to provide excellent educations via public funding, without the horrible entrenchment of the class system that a purely private system of education requires. That the state governments have abandoned their universities in the past generation (Michigan being one of the prime examples) is a consequence of the ideological failure of both the conservative and liberal camps in American life to articulate a justification either for funding or for de-funding these institutions. By their failure to grapple with the original, radical ideal of these universities, they have condemned them to a future in which they will either have to behave like their private kin or in which they will become perfectly mediocre. In either case, both camps will point to the outcome and claim it as a validation of their prior beliefs.

In the meantime, I can indulge in my Midwestern progressive reveries, and enjoy the Indian summer of these universities' magnificence. For now, they remain accessible to most families, and for now they continue to perform their mission of creating and spreading knowledge to the commonwealth, of lifting up their students' gaze while driving the foundations of democracy deeper into the bedrock. But Turner's warning still echoes:
The light of these university watch towers should flash from State to State until American democracy itself is illuminated with higher and broader ideals of what constitutes service to the State and to mankind; of what are prizes; of what is worthy of praise and reward. So long as success in amassing great wealth for the aggrandizement of the individual is the exclusive or the dominant standard of success, so long as material prosperity, regardless of the conditions of its cost, or the civilization which results, is the shibboleth, American democracy, that faith in the common man which the pioneer cherishes, is in danger.

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