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Gardens of Originality

How to overcome the routine to do the essential
University Business, April 2012

The 20-year-old “bubble era” of rapid expansion and leveraged prosperity in American colleges may have been a novelty; it did not, however, fund or build much that now seems original. Too bad, because there is a difference between movements or institutions (as there is for poets and scientists) that are original, truly springing from fresh inspiration, and those that are merely novel, highly derived forms growing from already familiar soils. The Great Recession continues a residual perplexity like a weather front hovering upon the shoreline. When it passes, will it have created the conditions of originality?

American higher education has experienced only six pivotal points of originality, separating itself from the patterns of learning in older cultures. While staying in a primitive log cabin on the frontier, Alexis de Tocqueville was caught by surprise that it contained “a few odd volumes of Shakespeare.” There, by the light of a hardwood fire, he read “Henry V” for the first time. Independent colleges on the frontier are an American original. Democracy and the liberal arts paired in distinctive combination made them one-of-a-kind. Among the boldest were some that hastened to admit women and African-Americans. Their founders believed they were planting gardens in the wilderness, expressing the desire to regain paradise in a life of the mind.

Abraham Lincoln, who often sent generous checks to small frontier colleges, is associated with another moment of originality—the land grant colleges. He ratified the Morrill Act of 1862. These universities have become turbines of our current transnational economy supplying intellectual capital and the fruits of research on a superlative scale. Another original achievement in American higher education was implemented at Harvard by Charles W. Eliot, with the introduction of elective courses into an otherwise set curriculum. This was its own declaration of American independence from British and German university traditions.

Liberal arts colleges are experimental stations trying out hybrid seeds.

Originality in the 20th century occurred three times within a narrow plot of ground—the G.I. Bill, the founding of community colleges, and the fired-up reaction to Sputnik that launched an unprecedented growth in universities as immensely complex research centers.

In the last 50 years, however, American post-secondary education has mostly grown its world-class reputation from the ground of earlier pioneering innovations in both structure and content, now so habitual that their first impulses are barely remembered. Where should we expect the next burst of the “American original” to occur in advanced learning, particularly in the undergraduate experience?

The most exciting, original ideas are already stirring in independent liberal arts colleges, many of them still in the backwaters of Tocqueville’s famous journey, none of them with the venture capital or endowment resources of better-known institutions. There is much under-noticed creative thinking that is opening frontier territory in these places.

My own institution, in its commitment to global learning, has a Francophone Semester that’s different from traditional study abroad. Students at St. Lawrence University (N.Y.) can immerse themselves in French language and culture in Quebec, Senegal, Paris, and Rouen—studying on three continents in one semester. Shorter timeframes of intense thinking will become a common motif as students develop nimbleness for multiple careers.

Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, recalls an interviewer posing a question to Marlene Dietrich. When she was asked what the most important thing in life is, the film star quipped, “How to overcome the routine in order to do the essential.” Independent liberal arts colleges, as experimental stations trying out hybrid seeds, have the best chance and hope of understanding what the essential must be. It is most doable in these settings for three reasons.

First, the possibility of developing a culture of erasable boundaries is evident, particularly as younger faculty members enter their careers with multi-dimensional interests. Creative combinations have almost become commonplace. In a typical week, I’ll discuss with a physicist her desire to teach with a musicologist, talk with a chemist about similar interests I just heard from a visual arts professor, or encourage economists to develop courses with environmental scientists.

At most independent colleges, even those overfamiliar with austerity, modest funding is enough. We have to get used to this reality: to wait for a kettle of gold to be unearthed before we attempt anything new is foolish. A small pot of funds can go a long way in launching an array of “trial and error” projects with strategic criteria. Some will naturally fail, but with minimal cost. But, many will become the seeds of larger success in academic programs or campus life. Operating budgets that reserve even less than 1 percent of expenses can work magic for faculty and students out of all proportion to the size of the actual internal grant.

The third reason to look for originality at independent colleges is built into their name: independence, the unfettered kind. Steve Jobs worked within a notion he called his “reality distortion field.” His utterly driven creativity, forceful personality, and incorrigible insistence would probably not make him a successful college president. Yet, he leaves a good clue about the genius of small colleges. Such places may often be rural, but they’re not isolated. By their independent natures and histories, they create their own reality, more real than the friction of urban affinities and resulting majestic distances between neighbors.

These places already know the interconnected world and its reality of differentness in microcosm—it comes to their campuses intimately with international students and faculty. And because the percentage of cross-pollinating ideas in such a setting is nearly inevitable, given the closeness of living in these communities, new realities about the world have the greater chance of being both explored and attempted.

Tocqueville once found “poetry, eloquence, and memory, the graces of the mind, the fire of imagination, depth of thought” in places he never expected. Those places still exist and they will have a significant influence in the judgment of whether or not we are shaped by repetitive novelty or, rather, by American originality.

William L. Fox is president of St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Council of Independent Colleges.

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