The last few years have seen an explosion of interesting books on higher education: William Deresiewicz's "Excellent Sheep," Michael Roth's "Beyond the University," Andrew Delbanco's "College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be," and Fareed Zakaria's "In Defense of a Liberal Education." Into that group now comes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni's "Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania." Describing otherwise normal kids maddened by Ivy-League fever, Bruni argues that we need to look beyond the Big-Name Schools to consider what education is really for. "Now more than ever," he writes, "college needs to be an expansive adventure, propelling students toward unplumbed territory and untested identities rather than indulging and flattering who they already are. And students, along with those of us who purport to have meaningful insights for them, need to insist on that." Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco calls Bruni’s book "sensible and sensitive." I agree, and not only because it singles out Luther College for praise.
Yes, on page 127, there we are:
[S. Georgia Nugent, former president of Kenyon College] has come around to the firm conviction that for undergraduates, [small and midsize independent liberal arts colleges are] ideal environments: especially approachable, uniquely nurturing. She said that each has a much greater bounty of programs than its size might lead an outsider to expect. And she noted that the colleges as a group present an extraordinary spectrum of options, with distinctive colors for individuals who take the time to notice.
For instance, Luther College, a school in Decorah, Iowa, that's affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, has proven to be a surprisingly sturdy cradle for winners of some of the most prestigious academic prizes. Although it has an endowment of only $116 million [actually, more] and just 2,500 students at a time, it has produced eight Rhodes scholars and, since 2009, sixteen Fulbright scholars.
Those are good numbers for those scholarships, which are gold standards of academic achievement anywhere. And of course, they aren't just numbers. One Fulbright recipient worked with a colleague who is one of the top Reformation historians in America (his wife, also a colleague, is the other.) A recent Rhodes scholar (a chemistry major) took the same pottery class I'd taken in Luther's Center for the Arts. Faculty here live the reality that "it takes a village to raise a child." Even if we don't know students from our classes, we know them by sight and by reputation, from casual conversations after lectures or in the caf. We send them to each other's offices and write recommendations and smile when we pass on the sidewalk. Luther's small enough for all of us to know each other as people, not numbers, even when the numbers are pretty good. This helps us make college an "expansive adventure" for every student who accepts the challenge.
When he first toured our campus upon my move here 10 years ago, my father was impressed by Luther's mission. "You all are like fine craftsmen," he said, "educating students one at a time by hand." I think of his words every time I talk with a fiction writer about MFA programs, or help a first-year student think through a challenge and find the tools to solve it. Learning the way we do it here – as in our first-year common course, Paideia – is fine-grained, up close and personal, tightly focused and wildly improvisational. Discussing Socrates' gadfly, I riff on memories of stinging flies from my Alabama childhood, sharp-billed enough to pierce the hide of a fat horse or a complacent politician. "I get it now!" a student exclaims. "What Socrates means – a biting fly, as big as both your thumbs." We read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's stories and talk about the power of images – how a strong visual or sensory impression gets locked into memory for her characters and for us, releasing its meaning all around it like a cloud when it's written down – and we write and share images from our own minds: fingerprints on a van window, parents waving goodbye at the airport back home, the keys to our very own rooms. Considering the poisonous gossip in Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," students leap to YikYak: how can rumor be so elusive yet so fatal? And how, then, should we live in a world that keeps telling us such Internet illusions are harmless, just for fun? Somehow our discussion always ends up here. How, then, shall we live?
That's the question our Luther College community – inquisitive and geeky and sincere and proud of it – helps us ask, person by person. How, then, shall we live? It's not a marketing slogan or a stupid college-rankings statistic. It's the engine of the daily life we live here, together, in all its nuance, stress, mystery, and, yes, beauty. It just is.
This past weekend, I hugged a lot of students as we sent another group of graduates forth into the world (one of them making a very important walk indeed.) I know where many of them are headed – graduate school, social work, medical school, the continued self-apprenticeship of writing alongside a day job. But more, I know their courage, and their passionate and curious minds. Because that's what I really do here – help students become selves with something to say. And that's really what college is for. You don't come here just to get a stamp of admission to a job that will become obsolete in 10 years. You come here to keep becoming a real person, to learn how to motivate yourself, and to develop your flexible, generous, resilient intellect – the only certain element in all of life, and the only one you can control – to keep learning, no matter what your path looks like. And my colleagues and I are privileged to challenge and cheer you as you start down on that path. Even in spirit, we’ll be walking beside you, for good.