the Midwestern public universities

(Madison, WI) I am here very briefly for a meeting, having come from this morning from Urbana/Champaign. My calendar for this six month period also shows days in Ann Arbor, Indianapolis, Bloomington, Chicago, and Detroit.

I don’t think the full glory of our Midwestern state universities is sufficiently appreciated. As an academic myself, I am prone to overestimate the importance of higher education. But in my mind, this region is a prairie studded with fine research institutions, like Greek city states or walled Renaissance towns, each boasting its famous thinkers and its cosmopolitan reach, each tied to the state that sustains it (and each, unfortunately, ready to send a mercenary army into symbolic battle with the others). Champaign, IL–just for example–houses the second biggest university library in America, whose 13 million volumes put it behind only Harvard. I am reminded of what the late Tony Judt once wrote:

By far the best thing about America is its universities. Not Harvard, Yale, e tutti quanti: though marvelous, they are not distinctively American—their roots reach across the ocean to Oxford, Heidelberg, and beyond. Nowhere else in the world, however, can boast such public universities. You drive for miles across a godforsaken midwestern scrubscape, pockmarked by billboards, Motel 6s, and a military parade of food chains, when—like some pedagogical mirage dreamed up by nineteenth-century English gentlemen—there appears…a library! And not just any library: at Bloomington, the University of Indiana boasts a 7.8-million-volume collection in more than nine hundred languages, housed in a magnificent double-towered mausoleum of Indiana limestone.

I am not as critical as Judt of the “scrubscape” and its people. But I agree that there’s something miraculous about these huge intellectual conglomerates rising from the fruited plain at the command of their state legislatures. Hopping around the region on commuter planes, you see professorial types with the New York Review spread on their knees and kids in college hoodies. I know that the universities’ funding is now mostly private and their students come increasingly from a global elite. I know they can be ivory towers or tools of Monsanto or the NSA. And yet, when people assess our era centuries from now, I think the great Midwestern public universities will warrant respect.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.