Imagine a list of American innovations that would convey some sense of our nation’s distinctiveness in the world. Depending on the list-maker’s mood, it might include the atom bomb, jazz, the constitutional rights of criminal defendants, abstract expressionism, baseball, the thirty-year fixed rate mortgage, and fast food. Everyone would have a different version; but unless it included the American college, it would be glaringly incomplete.
At least in a vague way, we all know this. Americans, particularly those in or aspiring to the middle class, talk about college all the time—from the toddler’s first standardized test, through the nail-biting day when the good or bad news arrives from the admissions office, to the “yellow, bald, toothless meetings in memory of red cheeks, black hair, and departed health,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson described his twentieth college reunion nearly two centuries ago (men aged more quickly in those days). The best week of the year for your local news vendor is probably the week U.S. News & World Report comes out with its annual college rankings