Musings on Undergraduate Education

I am occasionally asked for advice by young people (or I just volunteer it) on choosing a college. So…here is my general advice for Americans or those looking to go to college in America. I believe that four-year colleges — those without graduate programs — tend to deliver better education than do universities with graduate programs, primarily because the professors have to teach the courses, as they can’t offload them on to graduate students. Since they don’t teach graduate classes, which professors at research universities with graduate programs sometimes find more interesting than undergraduate classes, they are more likely to be engaged with the undergraduates.

There are plenty of good four-year colleges in America, but two of my favorites are Williams College, based in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and St. John’s College, which has campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

St. John’s is where I earned my B.A. in Liberal Arts. Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of all that I learned at that little college and how much I am indebted to the tutors, administrators, alumni, and donors who made the college possible. I was introduced to St. John’s College when I was browsing in a used book shop in San Francisco (where I was working at the time) and found and bought a very old copy of Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, which included a discussion of St. John’s in the back. I wrote off and submitted my application, which included an essay on Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics. Oddly enough, they accepted me. To my delight I found after I was there for a few years that one of the early influences on the college’s unique liberal arts approach was Albert Jay Nock, whose lectures on The Theory of Education in the United States influenced the founders of the college’s great-books based “New Program.” (Nock is an odd bird, but well worth reading. I especially recommend the collection of Nock’s writings edited by Charles Hamilton, The State of the Union: Essays in Social Criticism.)

The SJC library was full of wonderful old books, some of which had not been checked out for many decades, but which were still there waiting for someone to read them. It was there that I found and read the first English edition of Augustin Thierry’s classic History of the Conquest of England by the Normans and that I started to read Adam Ferguson’s An Essay on the History of Civil Society, which I discovered had not been checked out in well over a hundred years; when I found that on the title page it was inscribed “To James Mason, from the Author, Adam Ferguson,” I showed it to Miss Kitty, the librarian, and she snatched it from my hands. I never saw it again. Only many years later did I get another copy and finish reading Ferguson’s work.

2 Responses to “Musings on Undergraduate Education”

  1. Toby Heinrich

    Your Adam-Ferguson anecdote just gave me a good laugh early in the morning … well, and off I am to my run-down, badly-equipped university with nonetheless wonderful people that have too many students to take care off. Mine must be “publicly” funded, I assume (well, and I also know that it is).
    – Toby

  2. Ali Stocker

    Speaking of AJ Nock, I mentioned him last week in a letter the editor at the Economist…

    SIR — In your report “Meritocracy in America”, you despair that America is becoming an aristocratic, class-based system. This naivetÃ?Â??Ã?Â?Ã?© regarding our country’s social structure is dismaying. John Adams, Edmund Burke, and A.J. Nock all acknowledged that aristocracy, good or evil, is a natural occurrence. Regardless of one’s proclivity for utopias, there was, is, and always will be an aristocratic class system in America, and in every nation, Jacobins and Communists included.

    Alexandra Stocker
    Ithaca, New York