May 24, 2020
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The American School Century

What is the secret behind the extraordinary global impact of American universities?

The American School Century
The new crop of ­private education institutions in India follows the US school model
Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari
The American School Century

The modern Western university was born in medieval Europe. It was supported by the two dominant sources of power and wealth of the time: the Church and the State. In contrast, “the American college in the nineteenth century was a hometown entity,” writes education historian David Larabee. In a land of competing churches, founding a college was an effective way to “plant the flag and promote the faith.” 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, raise the value of local real estate.  

Unlike the cosmopolitan ambitions of the European university, the American university system started out as humble and provincial. This history continues to live in its deep community engagement, commitment to collegiate sports and alumni support. Later, two very different elements were imported from Europe that would blend surprisingly with its foundation in the local community: the German research university and the British undergraduate college.

This was an unexpected development: three contradictory forces, populist, elite and practical, coming together to shape one of the most formidable institutional forces of the 20th century.

The Oxbridge style undergraduate college experience provided the populist element: fraternities, Greek life, football, care-driven pedagogy and residential life. The clearest embodiment of the practical function is the land-grant college, set up on federally controlled plots of land by the Morill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890.

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.

Other institutions quickly followed the path. And so, the parochial, locally-sponsored institution finally attained a cosmopolitan stature and a global reputation.

The world changes with time; often it takes a radical turn. Today, the institution at the heart of the American higher education system, the liberal artscience university, inhabits a hostile climate. The unlikely trinity of the populist, the practical and the elite that came together in the 19th century in this formidable institution lies scattered in a state of mutual enmity. A bitter suspicion of elitism, high research and intellectual achievement has fuelled the frustration of a large mass of white working class population and has propelled the rise of the Trump presidency. This has drained popular faith in the American university system that became the envy of the world throughout the 20th century.

Republican politicians from Arizona to Florida have called for, and often engineered, the drastic diminution of support for the liberal arts and sciences, advocating vocational and professional courses in their places. There are also appeals to replace brick and mortal universities with online programs offering professional certification. The liberal arts system—involving a broad-based, multidisciplinary education in the humanities and the social and fundamental sciences—that has been shaped to perfection in the American university, is in sharp decline.

It’s ironic that as modern liberal arts education begins to lose ground in the country of its origin, it starts to gain popularity in the nations that have been dominated by the obsession with professional training for most of the 20th century. China, Korea, Singapore and India have all been consumed by a fetish for technical education as a quick ticket for upward mobility. Additionally, they have all been characterised by heavily bure­aucratic, hierarchical curricular and pedagogic s­ystems dominated by a phalanx of examinations, where for decades professors lectured and students took dutiful notes.

However, the 21st century has seen the appearance of multiple new liberal arts and sciences colleges in China, Japan and South Korea. Several of them have been established with US collaboration: NYU-Shanghai, Duke-Kunshan, and perhaps most famously, Yale-NUS. Others have been home-grown initiatives, including the new liberal arts colleges and curricula in institutions such as Seoul National University, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Kyung Hee University, Waseda University, and Ewha Womans University.  

The US model of ­education is ushering in a ­radically new tradition in the Asian landscape of higher ­education.

United International College, established in 2005 as the first full-scale collaboration between Hong Kong and Mainland China, is one of the many efforts initiated by universities across China to remake undergraduate education into a more dynamic and multidisciplinary experience. This has now become an influential trend, with many of China’s elite universities setting up small residential colleges for undergraduates. Others have introduced general education programs and have delayed specialisation to the sophomore (second) year, evident in the various core and distribution requirements of Yuanpei College at Peking University, Tsinghua University’s Xinya College, Lingnan University in Hong Kong and in Fudan University’s Upgrade Plan 2020 for undergraduate education. These are radical departures in a country where most students typically select from among majors like e-commerce and mec­hanical engineering before ever stepping foot on a campus. China’s central government officials have also increasingly come to recognise that the Soviet-style curriculum adopted in the 1950s, with its highly specialised majors and emphasis on political doctrine, no longer feels relevant.

In India, arts and sciences education has been dominated by colonially established universities. Since their primary goal was to certify large number of clerks and bureaucrats for the Imperial administration, their curricula have been defined by the centrality of examinations that invite a passive learning method. This model remained unchanged for many decades after ind­ependence. But here too the new millennium has witnessed the establishment of a number of private, non-profit institutions foregrounding multidisciplinary liberal arts curricula and interactive pedagogy derived from the US model of higher education. There is a range of institutions here, including Azim Premji University with its mandate of social development, Shiv Nadar University with its focus on the holistic education of engineers, and OP Jindal University with its emphasis on the same for legal professionals. Universities like FLAME, Ashoka, and the emergent Krea seek to place a more exclusive focus on liberal arts education.

As they usher a radically new tradition in the Asian landscape of higher education, the new liberal arts institutions face a number of critical questions.

  • What does it mean when expensive private ­education is introduced in nations so far defined by state-sponsored higher studies? More than anything else, elite private institutions remain sought-after in the US because they offer memberships in exclusive networks of power and privilege. Such institutions often find it difficult to reach out to underrepresented populations. In 2018, Harvard achieved a major milestone, adm­itting a class of freshmen that is 50 per cent non-white. This required de-prioritising legacy admissions, something that stirred some very difficult conversations in the university’s alumni ­office. What kind of outreach efforts and admission reform might Asia’s private institutions need to do to break out of a pattern of socio-economic elitism in these countries that are already upheld by rigid structures of hierarchy?
  • Will private and corporate philanthropy rise to the occasion? Public universities must remain the backbone of higher education anywhere in the world, as indeed they do even in the US, evident in large state universities that straddle the country. But as unstable government support—often fuelled by the global surge of reactionary politics—has made clear, there is also the need for conscientious private philanthropy to share the burden, and especially create high-quality spaces for innovative research and teaching.
  • The challenge will be to combine teaching, res­earch and community engagement on both local and global levels, and to sustain this in the long run. In India, for instance, these three functions have usually been streamlined to different kinds of institutions. And yet, the success of some of the greatest universities in the modern world has come from the fusion of these three.
  • For the rising youth population of these countries, the new surge in liberal artscience education opens up exciting opportunities. Charles William Eliot, Harvard’s legendary president, initiated the tradition of making a liberal artscience degree a formal prerequisite for professional edu­cation in medicine and law. Today, in a world where the nature of jobs is changing fast, with people seeking to reinvent their careers multiple times in their lives, a broad-based education that offers engagement with the fundamental arts and sciences looks ahead to the future far more than it recalls the past.

The author is a writer. His most ­recent book is College: Pathways of Possibility (Blooms­bury, 2018)

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