When colleagues heard that I was writing a book about college, they would sometimes ask me why. It seemed to me a surprising question, like asking a doctor why she is interested in hospitals and patients, or an architect why he cares about buildings and the people who live or work in them. It is true that most books on this subject are written by scholars who study it as a professional specialty, or by retired presidents who have led one kind of academic institution or another. So why would a professor of American literature distract himself with it? Occasionally, the question even carried a hint of suspicion or disapproval, as if I were losing interest in my “field.”
I have two answers, which seem worth stating here at the outset of the book that I ended up writing. The first can be stated very briefly. Undergraduate education—how its purposes and practices have been expressed and enacted—is a fascinating part of America’s history. I hope this book will convey some sense of that fascination.