Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Deep Thinkers Missing in Action ; Even at Elite Campuses, Some Students and Faculty Fret over Anti- Intellectualism

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Deep Thinkers Missing in Action ; Even at Elite Campuses, Some Students and Faculty Fret over Anti- Intellectualism

Article excerpt

Cheerleaders for a collegiate chess team? It may sound odd, but the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, doesn't mind going to such lengths to celebrate smarts.

In an effort to draw more academically talented students, this mid-size research institution offers scholarships to top chess players. It recently won the American Intercollegiate Chess Championship for the sixth time, handily surmounting intellectual bastions such as Harvard, Stanford, and Yale.

This strategy has not won the school millions in advertising revenue. Nor has it magically vaulted it into the Ivy League. But President Freeman Hrabowski says it sends a signal to prospective students that if they cherish the life of the mind, they will feel at home at UMBC.

"We want to counter the anti-intellectual thread that runs across higher education, even [at] the best schools," Dr. Hrabowski says. "People often know about an institution because of a winning football team. How often do you hear about a university known for sending large numbers of students on to graduate programs, professional schools, or community service? We're talking about a need for balance."

Critical thinking, self-examination, and the questioning of assumptions are all widely genuflected to as part of any good college education. But that's not what's happening on many college campuses, he and others argue.

American higher education has long had a dynamic tension between intellectualism - represented by the humanities and elite colleges - and more "practical" education offered up by land-grant universities, observers say.

But while the US university system is widely hailed for its quality, some fear the pendulum may be swinging toward an overall anti- intellectual approach.

"You can party a lot, ski a lot, and still do well and not be that intellectual," says Michael Newton, a junior majoring in government at Dartmouth College. "At Dartmouth, it's not that cool to be intellectual. It's much cooler to be outdoorsy. At Yale, my friends say it's cooler to be urban trendy."

Sports aren't the only culprit

At public universities, much of the blame for anti- intellectualism tends to be laid on big-money sports programs (see story, left).

Murray Sperber, a professor at Indiana University, says a "beer- and-circus culture" has permeated much of public higher education, often substituting for solid intellectual growth among undergraduates. He traces this phenomenon, in part, to an attitude prevalent in society that college is merely a means to a well-paid job.

"It's always anti-intellectual when the most important thing in life is making money," Dr. Sperber says.

And it's not just an issue at big-time sports schools. Some may be surprised to realize that anti-intellectualism is also rearing its head in the Ivy League.

Take the "nerd" label. In a column in the Daily Princetonian, Prof. John Fleming recently opined that "even at Princeton, one will frequently hear echoes of a national culture that rewards people with an undisguised passion for knowledge and exact intellectual application with such appellations as nerd, geek and wonk."

Princeton students' open letter

Some students and faculty recently raised concerns about what they see as a paucity of intellectual ferment at the Princeton, N.J., campus.

"There seems to be a widespread belief that intellectual life in the classroom and in the dorms, colleges, and clubs is not what it should be," wrote the Undergraduate University Council in an open letter to the president Sept. 30.

"This problem of a lackluster intellectual culture manifests itself in various ways and in all aspects of undergraduate life."

Signed by 11 student leaders, the letter calls for an investigation into what has weakened intellectualism on campus. One suspect, the letter says, is a prevalent "work hard, play hard" mentality that leads to "a strict dichotomy between structured, resume-building extracurricular activities and activities that provide a mindless release. …

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