Magazine article University Business

Gardens of Originality: How to Overcome the Routine to Do the Essential

Magazine article University Business

Gardens of Originality: How to Overcome the Routine to Do the Essential

Article excerpt

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 flesh 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.


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. …

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