The Undine Spragg Theory Of Higher Education; Or, Why Teaching Matters

December 2, 2010, 3:27 am

Whither the Republic

Today in the Chronicle of Higher Education Laurie Essig (sociology, Middlebury College) asks:  “Why Would Anyone Go To An Elite College?”  Essig is responding to a recent “Room for Debate” forum at the New York Times which asks a tellingly different question:  “Does It Matter Where You Go To College?”

Essig’s answer to the question posed by the Times seems to be:  that depends.  You might or might not become rich by going to an elite college, for example, and plenty of people get rich without going to elite colleges. So since we can’t depend on getting our financial investment back with lots o’ interest, why do we go to elite colleges? To be better than other people, that’s why.  Following Pierre Bourdieu, Essig notes that those who attend elite colleges acquire social capital, something that can’t be “measured in bank accounts alone….Maybe once we have a more complex understanding of power,” Essig concludes, “we can actually ask ourselves the far more important question: Is the transmission of high levels of various capital at elite institutions at its core anti-democratic? But if we naively assume that the college we attended doesn’t matter, we can never begin to understand why so many of us want to go to an elite college, despite the lack of direct correlation with future earnings.”

Essig is articulating what I would call the Undine Spragg Theory of Education.  Spragg, you might recall, is the heroine of  Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel The Custom of the Country.  She is very beautiful, has a boatload of money from a relative who had patented a permanent wave process, a good credit rating and a father who speculates in securities of the doubtful variety. Having found the town of Apex (a burg located somewhere in H.L. Mencken country) suddenly too small for her ambitions, Undine persuades her parents to strike out for the elite East Coast. New York is Undine’s finishing school and the launching pad for her future as the queen of high society, but we find her at the beginning of the novel stuck in a boarding house with her hick parents, Abner and Leota, unable to ascend the social ladder for her lack of polish, originality and character. In other words, Undine has yet to have acquired social capital, which she must earn.  Simple tasks like writing a thank you note on the correct piece of paper stymie her, and she is prone to attacks of nerves when her poor mother does things like refer to a “parterre” as an “opera box”  in front of the help.  As Wharton explains:

Undine was fiercely independent and yet passionately imitative. She wanted to surprise every one by her dash and originality, but she could not help modelling herself on the last person she met, and the confusion of ideals thus produced caused her much perturbation when she had to choose between two courses.

Undine Spragg was lacking, you see, in social capital, and it’s something you can’t just purchase or imitate.  Don’t tell me or Bourdieu it wouldn’t have helped her to do four years at Smith and major in English lit.

This brings me to what I find odd, in the Essig piece and in six out of the seven pieces in the Times that Essig is responding to: there is absolutely no mention of teaching (David Breneman of the University of Virginia is the only person to even mention that faculty have a role in the undergraduate experience.)  This would make them not unlike nearly everyone who writes about education nowadays.  Somehow in our conversations about college we talk about admissions, we talk about cost, we talk about knowledge as a product to be doled out in one way or another, we talk about status, but rarely do we talk about colleges that students aspire to attend because the quality of teaching is often very high.  In fact, the assumption that you can get the same quality of instruction pretty much anywhere seems to be the rule in all these articles about getting a good value for your undergraduate tuition.

So despite the fact that I am uncomfortable with how much it costs to attend Zenith, and that I think the quality of education available at Zenith could and would be available everywhere if our federal and state governments really gave a cr*p about higher education and invested in it, let me say why you or your kid might want to attend an elite college.

  • Small classes.  Because teaching is a social relationship, anywhere your kid goes where it is possible to be in small classes for at least half of the credit hours leading to the B.A. is a better college than the one where they can “guarantee” you that no class will be larger than 40 or 50.  What do I mean by small?  Fifteen or fewer.  I visited one college with Big Nephew where 80% of the classes are capped at 12.  How is this possible?  Such colleges are rich.  Really rich.  And really expensive.
  • Full time faculty who actually talk to students and have time to learn something about who they are so they can teach them better.  Highway flying adjuncts may be just as smart and just as capable as their full-time counterparts, but guess what they don’t have?  Time.  Guess what else they often don’t have?  Offices.  Office hours held in a local coffee bar, if they are held at all, is really not what they are being paid for, much less taking the time to advise an independent study or an honors thesis.  But full-time faculty cost money, good full time faculty cost more money, and good full-time faculty need to be teaching fewer than 75 students a term to really have time for anyone’s kid. 
  • Having enough faculty to keep not just required, but intellectually important, courses in the curriculum.  Bonus points for schools that support faculty research in all fields.  Why?  Not because research is a posh activity to brag about at cocktail parties, but because faculty who are doing research are not teaching your kid what they learned in graduate school two decades ago or more.  Knowledge changes, people:  unless members of the faculty have the time, inclination  and support to keep learning throughout their careers, they are not teaching well.
  • Being in class with other smart, ambitious kids and a teacher who knows how to help them all work together.  The nice folks who invented No Child Left Behind don’t get this (although Laurie Essig surely does, since she teaches at a college like mine) but students don’t tilt their heads and stick a funnel in one ear at the beginning of class so the teacher can pour stuff into their heads from jars marked “history” and “literature.”  A really good class is a lot like a really good orchestra:  the students come, having already done work, and under the teacher’s guidance (which is greater or lesser, depending on if it is a lecture class or a seminar) everybody talks.   They ask
    each other questions.  They argue.  They think Big Thoughts.  They get lost sometimes, and they have to find their way back.

 Now, if you are Undine Spragg, of course, none of this makes any sense:  education is just something you buy — like permanent waves, or writing paper, and of course you would buy it from the most fashionable emporium.  This is Laurie Essig’s point. But I am a little surprised that somehow, as the economic gap between the best and the rest widens, and tuitions of all kinds become harder to pay, those who comment on higher ed have suddenly decided that the answer to the problem is for everyone to stop being such a snob and stop seeking out good schools.  Instead of figuring out how to fund higher education, how to maintain the great colleges that already exist in a way that is affordable to a wide range of people, and how to reconvert colleges that have turned into mass distribution degree emporiums into functioning schools staffed by full-time faculty,  a consensus opinion seems to be developing that knowledge can be acquired any-old-how by any student who has a little gumption. And instead of asking why faculty at elite colleges actually have the time and the energy to teach creatively and innovatively, we ask whether it wouldn’t be more cost effective to run most schools on adjunct labor.

When you imagine that any education, at any school, as though it is a product that can be ordered over the internet and delivered by UPS, guess what?  You shouldn’t be surprised when you get a UPS education and UPS people, whether they are rich or not rich. So let’s ask the question again:  why should you go to an elite college?

Because someone might actually be able to take the time to teach you there.

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