Now, even in the middle of corporate universities, you will find people who are not playing the game. These are not necessarily people who don't show up at a boring class, who smoke a lot of weed, who read books that aren't assigned, who play in bands with bizarre names, and who wear T-shirts that are distressingly original. Though sometimes they are. But what truly characterizes people who are living in, or who want to live in, a scholarly enclave?
It's pretty simple, really. They are at school seeking knowledge so as to make the lives of other human beings better. They will not tell you this when you ask them about it in casual conversation. But it is true. They want to be teachers and scientists and soldiers and doctors and legal advocates for the poor. They want to contribute something to curing cancer; they want to make sure the classics of Roman literature don't die; they want to get people excited about the art of Picasso and maybe inspire people to make some (Picasso- inspired) art of their own; they want to be sure that when a foreign nation is inclined to threaten (I mean really threaten) the peace of the United States of America, that nation has to think twice and twice again.
Do these people want some recognition? Do they want to get paid? Yes, in varying degrees they do. There are very few people who are entirely unselfish in this world, and sometimes they don't live too long. But the people I'm talking about often put others first. They have a love for humanity in them, and it is this love that chiefly motivates what they do, even if they don't tell you so every five minutes. They want to make the world better and they are honest with themselves about doing this: They know that any quest that involves status and enrichment is dangerous and that it can take them away from what really matters. They know that the human capacity for self-deception is boundless and they are always on the lookout for the moment when their pride eclipses their love for the world.
How do you find these people, and how do you find the schools where they are plentiful-- what I've called the scholarly enclaves? That is, how do you find them if they are what you are looking for? You visit, you look, and you listen. When people start talking about leadership and incentives (and especially something called "incentivizing") and becoming an academicentrepreneur, you are probably in the wrong place. (Whenever people make fritters of English, I daresay that you're in the wrong place.) When people talk about innovation and "partnering"with big- money institutions, I would advise you to run. If you hear the word excellence more than twice in a sentence, you are hereby empowered to pop the speaker twice (but very gently) in the nose.
The residents of scholarly enclaves are harder to spot than the denizens of the corporate university, and I can't give you a definitive field guide to finding them. But I'll say first that they don't talk about being a leader and being an entrepreneur. They talk about working in a lab or developing a questionnaire for psychological research or writing a novel, or getting people who don't belong in jail out of jail, or defending their country against its enemies. And they are not smiling all the time. They are aware of the enormous gap between what humans aspire to and what remains to be done. They tend to take joy in their work, but they never feel that they have quite gotten it right. The people in the corporate university are forever pleased with themselves. They are always succeeding, getting A's that will soon be converted into dollars.
Where should a young person now go to college? It depends. Does she want more of the good American high school with its hustle and bustle, its strivings for excellence, its fixation on leadership, it's partnering and incentivizing and getting proactive, and succeeding, succeeding, succeeding? Or does she want something else?
This post is adapted from Mark Edmundson's Why Teach?.