Peithessophian Induction Address

Professor William C. Dowling

Kirkpatrick Chapel

Rutgers University

May 8, 2014

 

When the Peithessophian Society was reborn at Rutgers some years ago, I was honored to be invited to give its first induction address. That occasion remains one of my fondest memories. But today, as I find myself standing on the brink of academic retirement, I want to say something about the changes I've seen at Rutgers during the quarter of a century that I've taught here. What I'm going to say is that Rutgers itself seems to me to be standing on a different sort of brink. Administrators like to call it changing with the times. Alumni who care about the school tend to see it as a forgetting of Rutgers' history as an old eastern university. Whether it's one or the other isn't easy to decide. So today I'd like to talk about where Rutgers finds itself at the beginning of this new century.


Let me start with a bit of personal history. I came to Rutgers from teaching at a large state university in another part of the country.
There's no point in giving its real name, but since I'm going to be drawing on my experience there I'll need a point of reference. Let me give my old university the name Sargasso State. What I want to concentrate on is the generic character of Sargasso State. I remember hearing someone back in the 1950s, talking about the social conformity of that period, complain that all American cars were essentially Chevrolets. It's in that spirit that I want to argue that in American higher education today most public universities are essentially Sargasso State.


But not Rutgers, at least not until very recently. Several decades ago, when Rutgers called to ask if I'd consider a position in its English department, I remember feeling the way Nobel prizewinners must feel when they get a telegram from Stockholm. For me, as for most of my graduate school classmates, Rutgers and one other English department stood at the very pinnacle of our ambitions. The other department was Yale, which was then the center of the New Criticism, based on the theory of literary autonomy and close formal analysis. At Rutgers, the same approach was being pioneered in a closely related way by a brilliant group of younger critics—Richard Poirier, Thomas Edwards, David Kalstone, and others—who had worked under the aegis of Reuben Brower at Harvard. Each school sponsored a publication: at Yale, the Yale Review, at Rutgers, Raritan, which is today perhaps the most influential literary and intellectual quarterly in America.


That may be a bit more institutional history than you wanted know, but it's important now because my subject concerns the way colleges and universities with a history do or don't honor their own heritage. For instance, there are students on this campus today who have no idea that Rutgers was one of the nine colonial colleges in existence before the American Revolution. There are thousands more who do know that but to whom it means nothing. But take a second to think about this curious fact of history. Seven of those colonial colleges—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia, Brown, and Penn—are today private. Only two, Rutgers and the College of William and Mary, are public. William and Mary, which has never lost touch with its history and traditions, and which has to compete for top students in its own state with the University of Virginia, is in educational terms on a level with the seven private institutions I've just named. Until very recently, Rutgers was on that same level. But today that's no longer true. So I'd like to try to see how and why that has come about.


"Today, selective admissions is the elephant in the room of American higher education.


Let me start with Sargasso State, the unnamed public university from which I came to Rutgers. To understand the Sargasso States of American education, the first thing that needs to be talked about is admissions policy. But there's a problem about this. It's that very subject of selective admissions has the status of a taboo in American higher education. I'll use a standard analogy. You all know the story about the elephant in the room. There's a cocktail party, men in coats and ties and women in pretty dresses, and there's a lot of chatter and laughter and badinage, but it also turns out that in the midst of the party there is standing a huge circus elephant that nobody is allowed to mention. If anyone does mention it, they get told to leave. Today, selective admissions is the elephant in the room of American higher education.


There are reasons, many having to do with racial and religious discrimination and class anxieties, why the elephant is still there even when America seems at long last to be on the way to solving its problems in those troubled areas. But I think the major reason is this: Americans, precisely because of our nation's long and tangled history of various kinds of real discrimination, tend to misunderstand selective admissions as a form of social discrimination. We all know that there was a time, now properly hideous in our collective memory, that Jews couldn't be admitted to the country club, or African-Americans had to sit in a different section of the restaurant than white people, or women weren't allowed to join all-male organizations. So why isn't it exactly similar to say that keeping someone out of Princeton or the College of William and Mary on the mere basis of low reading comprehension or rudimentary mathematical ability is just another form of discrimination on arbitrary grounds?


The answer is that the country club model is a totally misleading analogy in relation to college admissions. Admitting a freshmen class at a selective school turns out to be much more like auditioning potential members of an orchestra, or choosing players from among those trying out for a basketball team. The crucial point—the one that isn't allowed to be discussed as long as selective admissions s the elephant in the room—is that no college or university can be better than its students, any more than an orchestra can be better than its musicians or a basketball team better than its players. If you fill an orchestra with people who can't read a musical score or play their instrument, you can pretend that the scrapings and screeches they produce are music, but you won't fool anyone who has ever heard a Haydn symphony. If your basketball team is made up of players who have no idea how to dribble or pass or shoot—or, in extreme cases, who don't even know the rules of basketball—you're not going to fool anyone who's ever seen a basketball game.


"No college or university can be better than its students, any more than an orchestra can be better than its musicians.


There's an even more important point about selective admissions. Unfortunately, it's also in the elephant in the room category. It's that bright and intellectually engaged students educate each other. A group of social scientists at Williams College calls this the Theory of Peer Effects. Part of what they mean concerns the classroom experience. If you're sitting in a class where every student present has spent hours on an intellectually demanding assignment, and where the professor is then able to pose questions that bring out implications no student had so far seen, you're in college. Anything else is not college but an empty charade.


Another crucial part of what the Williams group has studied is the learning that goes on outside the classroom, in the dorms and the dining halls and even on walks across campus. As one Williams psychologist puts it, at a college with bright and intellectually engaged students, even a late-night discussion of whether God exists or what went wrong on a date will involve higher-level analytical thinking. My own favorite expression of this idea comes from Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden. "Those things for which the most money is demanded," Thoreau said, "are never the things which the student most wants. Tuition, for instance, is an important item in the term bill, but for the more valuable education a student gets by association with the most intelligent and perceptive of his contemporaries, no charge is made."


Suppose, though, that we could manage to get the elephant out of the room. Then we'd be in a position to confront two important questions. The first, if you're a college or university, is how you're supposed to go about getting students like the ones Thoreau has in mind. The second is what happens if you can't attract such students, but you still have to fill the dormitories and pay the faculty and the staff and run the physical plant. What are you supposed to do then? This question takes us to my experience at Sargasso State University, which like the vast majority of public institutions in America had essentially open admissions. A large percentage of those admitted were at or below a junior high school level of reading comprehension and mathematical ability.


While I was at Sargasso State, as it happens, the situation got alarming enough that administrators panicked and devised what they called a "basic skills" program in four areas, English, mathematics, natural science, and social science—courses that were supposed to get remedial-level students ready for college work. That's when Sargasso State found out that it had already been running a remedial-learning operation all along. It turned out that over 60% of entering Sargasso State students needed to do remedial work in at least one area before being allowed to go on to what were called "real" college courses. A substantial number had to take remedial courses in two or more categories. Then, after the program had been tried for a number of years, there turned out to be no evidence whatsoever that the basic skills courses were doing anything to get anyone up to college level. This reflects the situation at literally hundreds of American colleges and universities today.


Still, statistics tell only part of the story. A more important part concerns what it feels like to be a teacher or a student at a place like Sargasso State. For me, as a teacher in the humanities, the crucial factor was reading comprehension. The reason for that is important: a genuine college education involves being able to read—to really read and understand—works like Hobbes's Leviathan Locke's Treatises on Civil Government and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and Samuel Johnson's Rambler, or in American writing, Emerson's Nature or Thoreau's Walden. But to students at places like Sargasso State, works like these are as impenetrable as a page of ancient Greek. So administrators and faculty do what people at such places always do: they dumb down the curriculum, assign textbooks written at a eighth-grade level, pretend with a straight face that students who never once actually do a class assignment are doing all their class assignments, and hand out A's and B's at the end of the semester so that Sargasso students can go on getting the Pell Grant money that keeps the institution going.


"Administrators dumb down the curriculum, assign textbooks written at an eighth-grade level, and hand out A's and B's so that students can go on getting the Pell Grant money that keeps the institution going."

To understand the current situation at Rutgers, though, it's useful to try to imagine that you were an administrator at Sargasso State who wanted to make the school a respectable institution. What everyone would tell you is that your project was virtually hopeless. A school where the campus is teeming with undergraduates not remotely capable of doing college-level work—and who, in addition, will do everything possible to avoid such work—cannot, after all, force bright students to go there. Once an institution has sunk to a certain level, it has no choice, does it, but to keep on compromising, and lowering standards?


The simple answer is yes, it has a choice. It's to raise admissions standards. Now I'm perfectly aware that this solution sounds, as my colleagues in the philosophy department would put it, totally counterintuitive. If you're on a downward spiral, if you're plunging toward rock bottom so fast that no self-respecting student even wants to bother applying to your school, what in the world can you hope to accomplish by raising admission standards? Wouldn't doing that mean that you were likely to wind up with a total of four students in your freshman class? How are you going to keep the heating system going, let alone pay the faculty and the secretaries and all those counselors and deans and assistant deans and vice presidents and assistant vice presidents that universities like Sargasso State always seem to employ?


Instead of addressing that question directly, I want to answer it by telling you a kind of bedtime story, something like the Grimm's fairy tales that I read when I was little, full of wizards and enchanters and magic spells,. It starts like this: Once upon a time, in a faraway land called the Garden State, there was a little institution called Trenton State College. It was located just thirty miles down the road from very large public university that seemed not even to know that Trenton State was there. Still, Trenton State was also a public institution, funded by exactly the same state legislature and drawing its students from exactly the same applicant pool as its larger neighbor. The problem was that little Trenton State had fallen on hard times. Its student body, then numbering around 4000, had been declining for years. The test scores of entering freshmen had been going steadily down. At meetings of the Trenton State trustees, there had actually been suggestions that the time had come for Trenton State to close its doors.


But then there appeared at Trenton State a robed figure, a magician or wizard who, taking on the human appearance of a college president, gave his name as Harold Eickhoff. And this wizard, summoning his trustees into a meeting room and closing the door behind them, announced that he was about to cast a powerful spell of enchantment that would reverse the fortunes of Trenton State. "I intend," he told the trustees, "to raise admissions standards. Drastically." And the trustees, not understanding that he was a wizard in disguise, said "But president Eickhoff, last year's entering class had only four students in it. And their scores were rock bottom. If we do what you say, next year's class will have two students." But the wizard remained unmoved. "I mean," he said again, "to raise admissions standards. Drastically. My idea is that an institution should be measured by quality rather than by quantity."


In the years that followed, the board of trustees was astounded to see that the wizard's spell had for some mysterious reason launched Trenton State on an upward course. Far from decreasing applications, the higher standards seemed to be drawing more applicants. Even better, among those applying was a substantial percentage whose other applications were going out to selective schools. As the trustees watched, the number of applications kept rising year after year. The scores of those who chose to attend Trenton State kept rising at the same time, until at a certain point entering SAT scores rocketed upwards past those of the large public university away down the road. As people in the outside world saw what the wizard was accomplishing, the state legislature was happy to pour money into Trenton State: new residential and classroom buildings, new laboratories, greener lawns, nicer shrubbery. The Trenton State campus, which had once resembled an abandoned parking lot in downtown Detroit, was becoming a pastoral idyl, with birds and butterflies and sunlight on the grass.

 
"Trenton State entering SAT scores rocketed upwards past those of the large public university down the road."


At a certain point in the 1990s, by which time Trenton State was routinely winning a high place in national rankings of public liberal arts colleges, the name "Trenton State" came to seem a bit of an embarrassment. It was felt that a new name was in order. "But what name?" the trustees asked the wizard, whom they by now recognized to be no ordinary college president. "The College of New Jersey," responded the wizard. "But you can't use that name!" the trustees protested. "Trenton State isn't just close to a large public university thirty miles down the road. It's even closer to a private school called Princeton. Everybody knows that for the first hundred and fifty years of its existence Princeton's name was the College of New Jersey. They'll never let you use that name for Trenton State. They'll sue." "They will let us use the name," said the wizard. "We may have to go to court, but it will all work out." As it happens, they did have to go to court, and it did all work out. Trenton State is today the College of New Jersey.


Meanwhile, what about the large public university down the road? What the wizard of Trenton State had grasped, of course, was what the Williams College policy group calls the theory of peer effects, or what I think of as the Thoreau principle in education. Bright and intellectually engaged students want to go to school with other bright students, for the same reason that a talented musician wants to play in an orchestra with other talented musicians or a talented athlete wants to play on a team with other talented players. Students themselves, as Thoreau understood, determine the level of each other's education. By now, I suspect, you will have figured out that the large public university down the road from Trenton State was none other than our own Rutgers. So let me say a word about what was going on at Rutgers while the wizard was turning Trenton State into the College of New Jersey.


The single biggest change I've witnessed at Rutgers is the marginalization of the brightest and most intellectually engaged students on campus. Part of this has to do simply with administrative reorganization. Some of you may not even be aware that the Rutgers you attend now, which has become a large impersonal state university on the model of Nebraska or Oklahoma or Ohio State, was until very recently made up of a number of smaller self-contained units. These included Rutgers College, descended directly from Old Queens, the colonial college founded in 1766, but also Douglass, one of the distinguished women's colleges—others are Radcliffe at Harvard, Barnard at Columbia, Pembroke at Brown—born during the nineteenth century before coeducation became the norm, then Cook College, which came to Rutgers as a unit bestowed by the Morrill Land Grant Act, and finally Livingston College. Twenty-five years ago, each of these entities had its own center of gravity, with the salutary effect of breaking down the anonymity of a large state university into smaller face-to-face communities

 
"Rutgers College was once among what Richard Moll called the "public Ivies": schools where top students from less-than-wealthy families could get an education as good as that at the most competitive private colleges and universities"

Now let me zoom my lens in on Rutgers College, which, when I first arrived, was among what the author of an influential book on college admissions, Richard Moll, called the "public ivies": schools where top students from less-than-wealthy families could get an education as good as that at the most competitive private colleges and universities. For me, a prime example was the Rutgers Honors Program, on whose selection committee I served for many years. The program was as competitive as most Ivy schools, as I learned when one of my Rutgers students came in one day to say that her parents were very upset because it had turned down her little sister. "That's okay," I told her."The program is very selective. I'll explain to your parents." "But," my student told me, "my sister has already been admitted to Columbia and Brown. My parents don't understand how Rutgers could be harder." As it turned out, her sister, assuming that Rutgers wasn't as competitive, had written only a lackluster essay for her honors application, and had been rejected. She wound up having to settle for Columbia.


That was the Rutgers at which I arrived in the late 1980s. In those days, with my Sargasso State experience still painfully fresh in my mind, I made a point of keeping an eye on Rutgers admissions statistics. Virtually every time I did so, I found that there were between two and three thousand students on campus who on the basis of their verbal scores could be at any Ivy League school. In purely selfish terms, since I teach courses with demanding material—works by Dryden and Pope and other 18th-century poets, philosophers like Shaftesbury and Hume and Thomas Reid, prose by Samuel Johnson and Edward Gibbon—I came to regard this group as something like my special constituency. Then, I'm afraid, I made the mistake of starting to take that constituency for granted, and stopped monitoring admissions statistics. Only recently did I begin again, to discover that this echelon had shrunken drastically.


Still, statistical analysis tells only part of any story like this. Let me mention just one last statistic, and then we'll get to my main point, which concerns, once again, what I call the marginalization of the best students at a university in relation to a large mass of students who either shouldn't be there or don't want to be there. The statistic is this: in New Jersey, which has one of the most talented applicant pools in the United States, over 70% of the top students coming out of high school go out of state to college. Of the 30% who remain, Princeton and the College of New Jersey take a disproportionately high percentage. So the question that arises—the major question that confronts Rutgers as an old eastern university—concerns the situation of talented students who come to Rutgers today.


Along with my own experience at Sargasso State, part of my answer comes from exchanges with colleagues at places like Ohio State and Michigan State and Indiana. One of them, Murray Sperber, wrote a book entitled Beer and Circuses, where he argued that when a large public university loses all sense of its higher mission it becomes essentially the educational equivalent of Jersey Shore, but with a cast of thousands. Part of what he talks about is commercialized college sports. If you've got a campus swarming with people who have no interest in reading or thinking or learning, who almost or never go to class and, when they do, spend the hour checking their Facebook page or texting their friends, you've got to give them something to occupy their time, just as you do with children stuck inside on a rainy day. One of Sperber's points is that a semi-pro football or basketball franchise, giving students a chance to paint their faces and dress up in hats and tee-shirts announcing that they're Razorbacks or Armadillos or Scarlet Knights, serves this purpose admirably.

 

Another part of what Sperber is talking about, though, and maybe the most important part, concerns an entire campus dominated by what are called "party animals": students who live mainly to get drunk and play loud music at full blast out of their cars or from the porches of their frat houses. My most vivid impression of how centralization has been transforming Rutgers comes from a recent book called The Shadow Scholar, written by an author who went to Rutgers, and who began his career as a ghostwriter of term papers and take-home exams when other students offered to pay him to do the work they'd hand in for credit in their courses. He then went on to do the same thing on a larger-scale basis over the internet, but the picture of Rutgers he gives at the beginning is what remains vivid in the mind. In The Shadow Scholar, one encounters a campus swarming with party animals who actively despise anything having to do with thinking or learning, who brag about cheating on exams, who spend most of their time playing video games or getting drunk with their friends, and who—judging by the samples of their work that the author provides—should never have been admitted to college at all.

 
". . . a campus swarming with party animals who actively despise anything having to do with thinking or learning, who brag about cheating on exams, who spend most of their time playing video games or getting drunk with their friends, and who --judging by samples of their work -- should never have been admitted to college at all."

So what's the message for today's Rutgers? We have arrived at a point, I think, at which the school's history and traditions either do or don't play a decisive role in its future. At most public universities this isn't a problem. Sargasso State, after all, has no alternative except to keep on being Sargasso State. But Rutgers, drawing from exactly the same applicant pool that permitted Trenton State to become the College of New Jersey, and having in addition a history going back to before the American Revolution, simply needs to decide to honor its own inheritance.


As you may have guessed, I think that if some magician or enchanter set out to save Rutgers today, the first thing he or she would do is both raise admissions standards and transform the whole admissions process. There are now about 28,000 undergraduates enrolled at Rutgers. Let's suppose, for the sake of discussion, that 8,000 of them are the beer-and-circus types depicted by Sperber and the author of The Shadow Scholar. This is where the current Rutgers admissions policy has failed most dismally. At selective schools, every applicant is asked to submit an essay that gives real evidence of intellectual reach, and to provide materials that permit a considered evaluation of personal and moral character. By changing the process and tightening standards at the rate of 3% a year, the party animal influence at Rutgers could be eliminated in ten or twelve years. That would be an enormous improvement. Teachers would begin to enjoy walking into the classroom. Serious students would begin to sense that they were what the institution was all about. Rutgers would have embarked on the process of becoming Rutgers again.

 
"By tightening standards at the rate of 3% a year, the party animal influence at Rutgers could be eliminated in ten or twelve years. That would be an enormous improvement. Serious students would begin to sense that they were what the institution is all about."

All of which brings me to the reason that today's Peithossophian induction seems to me so important an indication that Rutgers is much closer to such a state of affairs than most people currently realize. Here's why. If you say that many intellectually talented students now find themselves isolated or marginalized at Rutgers, you're also by implication asking what it would be like if such students occupied the center of campus life. But the answer is that we don't have to imagine that, because exactly that centrality is a major part of Rutgers' history. As Peithessophian members, you're all aware that during the nineteenth century undergraduate life was dominated by two literary and debating societies, Philoclean and Peithessophian. Nor was this simply a Rutgers phenomenon. It was also true at the other colonial colleges, as with Whig and Clio at Princeton, for instance, or at William and Mary the F.H.C. Society—the letters stand for the Latin Fraternitas, Humanitas, Cognitioque—of which Thomas Jefferson was a member. At Rutgers, Peithessophian was regarded as being so important to the intellectual life of the college that the administration endowed it with rooms in Van Nest Hall, with a substantial library and congenial surroundings for meetings, discussion, and formal debate.


Whig and Clio at Princeton and F.H.C. at William and Mary are alive and active today, evidence that others of the colleges that predate the American Revolution remember their traditions, and—much more important than that—still see a life devoted to mind or spirit or intelligence as being what college is all about. That's why the rebirth of Peitho a few years ago seemed to me so remarkable an indication that the same spirit remains alive at Rutgers. At a time when virtually no one in the administration or on the Board of Governors has any real sense of what once made Rutgers a distinguished institution, when younger faculty are arriving on a campus that many would have a hard time distinguishing from Ohio State or Michigan State or the University of South Florida, and when literally thousands of students sullenly go through the motions of "being in college" when they could care less about expanding their intellectual horizons through study or serious thinking, a critical mass of undergraduates has shown that the life of active intelligence is still, for them, inseparable from a meaningful Rutgers experience.


Let me take my last words today from Mason Gross, a scholar and philosopher who was also a great president of Rutgers. Gross was entirely willing to concede that a college education may have as one of its legitimate purposes the attainment of technical or vocational competence. But its ultimate purpose, he always maintained, is something else, an awakening of the intellect that he saw as amounting in educated men and women almost to a new sense of vision. That is why, he once told an audience, there is only one standard of whether our students are really educated. If they are, he said—and here I'm going to quote— "they will in increasing numbers go forth to battle the ignorance and stupidity, the ugliness and nastiness all around us, which most people never see." The very existence of Peithessophian at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it seems to me, proves that even against substantial odds Rutgers is still capable of molding young men and women who have not forgotten how to see. And in that lies its deepest hope.


Thank you.

Copyright (c) 2014 W.C. Dowling