If you have sat through a high school commencement ceremony in the past 25 years, you may have endured an earnest recitation of the last book written by Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” The book is a popular gift to graduates from grown-ups who have forgotten how late adolescents feel about condescension. Here are two deeply felt, intentionally provocative alternatives for college applicants worried about getting into their first choice and parents worried about paying for it: Frank Bruni’s exhortation to go elsewhere and Kevin Carey’s invitation to go online.
Bruni argues that the first place some of us go — not to college generally but to a particular college — has less impact on identity, success and happiness than many suppose. What he calls the “industrialization of the college admission process” in recent decades amounts to a speedup abetted by expensive personal coaches, proliferating online applications and the inevitable U.S. News & World Report rankings. He admits to “bashing” the last of these familiar and easy targets. “I’ll proceed to bash,” he explains, “because I believe passionately that the college experience can’t be reduced in this fashion.”
Passion has been one of Bruni’s trademarks on the New York Times Op-Ed page since 2011, particularly for this subject. “I’ve used my column,” he writes in the book, “to argue that education is so much more than brand.” Regular readers may recognize bits of those columns that reappear here — such as the Yale applicant whose essay recalled being so enrapt by her teachers that she once urinated on herself rather than interrupt.
Parents who always want the best for their brightest may not seek to be talked out of that impulse, but Bruni tries to re-educate readers about what best really means. Arguing that motivated kids can get a good education almost anywhere, he lists Fortune 500 executives, Pulitzer Prize winners and MacArthur Foundation fellows who attended what he gingerly refers to as “public universities and schools without major reputations.” Of course, it’s one thing to learn that unranked College X graduated a genius and quite another to gamble on its doing as well by your child, however far above average.
Candid interviews with the likes of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (who went to the University of Delaware but sent his son to Princeton), Condoleezza Rice (a self-described “failed piano major” at the University of Denver) and the CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour (a thwarted doctor who got her journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island) raise similar quibbles. Can you imagine any of those three being put at a disadvantage by their choice of college?
This is actually Bruni’s point: that the best education is less a matter of getting into the best school than of making the best of wherever you go. His most vivid examples and insights emerge from sensitive conversations with parents, applicants, guidance counselors, admissions officers — and especially recent graduates, thriving 20-somethings who now feel lucky to have been rejected by their preferred schools. Some who ended up far afield, geographically or demographically, discovered the educational and personal value of exceeding their comfort zones. Such was the case for Bruni himself, who, after growing up in the suburbs of Connecticut and New York, turned down his dream school, Yale, to accept a scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Reflecting on “the stories of many of the people happiest with the way things had turned out for them,” Bruni pulls from them a few common threads, including “an openness to serendipity” and “a nimbleness in adapting to change, a willingness to shoot off in a new direction.”
Kevin Carey urges nearly identical advice not on parents and students but on colleges and universities, which he believes have actively resisted transformation by information technology in order to maximize profit and preserve centuries-old privileges. An education wonk at the New America Foundation, with degrees (Bruni would want you to know) from Binghamton and Ohio State, Carey elegantly blends policy analysis, reportage and (briefly) memoir into a hard-charging indictment of the eggheads and ivory towers many Americans love to hate. While Bruni extols all the other places you could go, Carey believes that the time is nearly at hand when students won’t need to go anywhere to learn everywhere.
Part alternative history and part road trip, the book is a tour guide to higher education from Bologna, Italy, where the first modern university was founded in the late 11th century, to what the author rather breathlessly calls “new digital learning environments” of the early 21st. Carey traces our present dilemma (frenzied competition for scarce berths at vastly overpriced institutions) to the 19th century, when a new trinity of “practical training, research and liberal arts education” combined to form a “strange hybrid university.” Over the past hundred years, he argues, efficient and economical education has been sacrificed to professorial autonomy in research and teaching and to high but elusive ideals of curricular breadth.
Carey blames what he calls “the hybrid university administrative class” — a vast, left-brained conspiracy of bureaucrats who have turned American higher education into “a government-backed, culturally reinforced monopoly on the sale of increasingly valuable credentials.” In other words, elite universities are fully accredited racketeers that employ intellectual and economic muscle to frighten parents into either paying protection money or risking something bad happening to their children.
You have to admit he’s got something there.
He’s also got a great sense of irony. Beyond noting that research conducted at “the best hybrid universities” contributed greatly to the “information technology revolution” that might be hastening their demise, Carey delves into brain and learning science to point out that many of the same schools “made phenomenal contributions to the understanding of human cognition even as they steadfastly refused to apply those insights to their own philosophies and practices of teaching.” Seeking out exceptional institutions, he spends time at a few where “learning scientists and computer engineers,” as well as entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, have been collaborating at “the cutting edge of learning technology.” These include Stanford and especially Carnegie Mellon University. (Disclosure: I am on faculty at Carnegie Mellon, albeit teaching analog American history and relying on my degrees from the University of Iowa and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.)
When the new science of learning, new online business models and new kinds of verifiable, digital credentials converge, Carey concludes, “the cornerstone of the hybrid university economy will begin to crumble, and the University of Everywhere will take its place.” The subtitle is perhaps the least clever thing about this readable and thoughtful book. From the start, Carey adopts a utopian or ominous (depending on your end of the tuition bill) tone that leads him to follow intriguing claims — “At the University of Everywhere, educational resources that have been scarce and expensive for centuries will be abundant and free” — with silly ones: “The University of Everywhere will span the earth.” Hyperbole sometimes distracts from his gift for finding fascinating characters and explaining complex ideas clearly.
Ultimately, these are both utopian books. Perhaps Bruni speaks for both authors when he writes that “college has the potential to confront and challenge some of the most troubling political and social aspects of contemporary life; to muster a pre-emptive strike against them; to be a staging ground for behaving in a different, healthier way.” But he looks backward with nostalgia at what may be lost if Carey’s futuristic vision materializes: the transformative experiences of different people learning in a room together.
This originally appeared in The New York Times Book Review.