Scholar At Large
Higher and Higher EdWhy American universities rule the world
Higher education is often lumped in with those domains in which the United States is losing, has lost, or will soon lose its edge. The 1980s unleashed a wave of nostalgia for “the good old days” of American higher ed. Reacting primarily to the student excesses of the 1960s and 1970s, angry critiques like Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and Charles Sykes’ Profscam (1988) denounced the American uni-versity.
Sykes wrote: “Almost single-handedly, the professors—working steadily and systematically—have destroyed the university as a center of learning and have desolated higher education, which is no longer higher and not much of an education.” Chester Finn, William Bennett, Lynne Cheney, and Charles Murray added their intellectual heft. The consensus: American higher education was fast going downhill, and soon would be surpassed by the up-and-coming wave from China and India.
The funny thing about all this yearning for the past is that the Golden Age of American Higher Ed never existed. In fact, as is often the case with such lamentations, this is the Golden Age. We are living in it.
America’s colleges began in the seventeenth century as bulwarks of Protestant orthodoxy. In 1862, when a congressional act established land-grant colleges, the only significant research interest was in mining and agriculture. A few German-educated American university presidents decided in the 1880s to embrace the new European research degree, the Ph.D. But Europe—Germany in particular—remained the clear leader into the early twentieth century. The young Robert Oppenheimer studied at Harvard, but went to Göttingen for his research degree.
World War II changed everything. Europe lay in ruins, and American higher education, fueled by the G.I. Bill, exploded in a supernova of diversity. It comprised nearly four thousand institutions—from tiny religious colleges right up to mega-universities. It was typically American: some chaos, some anarchy, and lots of entrepreneurship.
In one generation, American higher ed conquered the world. Lists of postwar Nobel laureates were peppered with Americans, many born elsewhere but drawn to the United States. (Allan Cormack, for example—Tufts’ 1979 Nobelist in medicine—was born in Johannesburg.) For more than half a century, America has been the unrivalled leader in scientific and biomedical research, even after Europe and Asia recovered from the Second World War.
The two most prominent world university rankings are those compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the Times of London. American research universities dominate both lists. On one, Oxford and Cambridge are the only non-American universities to break into the top twenty. On the other list, the Americans captured eighty-nine out of a hundred spots. And American universities still lead the world in citations of scientific papers.
International enrollment is also secure. Although overseas admissions dipped briefly after 9/11, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the American research university degree once again reigns supreme. Whether from Berkeley or Harvard, or from any of the other top one hundred research universities, that American Ph.D. is still the gold standard sought by young researchers worldwide.
Although we will have to work hard to keep ahead, the least of our worries is the Europeans. It’s a matter of attitude. The Europeans, for whatever reason, are civil servants who regard themselves as part of a national system. Try as they might, they have failed to capture the magic of American innovation—that risk-taking, hell-bent-for-discovery attitude that drives our research enterprise. No one has duplicated the U.S. reverence for basic research with no thought for where it might go—the trait that led Allan Cormack to jot down some equations on the back of an envelope, little guessing that decades later they would be applied to three-dimensional x-rays that would revolutionize medicine.
China and India could well make strides in this century. But as long as China remains totalitarian and Europe paternalistic, risk-taking will not take hold. India has democracy of a sort, but the caste system will have to go. Unless moral certitude blinds us, America will continue to show the way in free and unhindered research. In this, at least, we are the envy of the world.
In his forty-six years at Tufts, SOL GITTLEMAN has been a professor of German, Judaic studies, and Biblical literature, and has taught in a variety of departments. Formerly Tufts’ provost, he is now the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor. He was this year’s commencement speaker at Tufts and received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.