January 16, 2014

IN THE TIMES HIGHER EDUCATION SUPPLEMENT, Northern Kentucky more inspirational than the Ivy Leaguers.

Eat your heart out, Harvard. You’re not as good as Northern Kentucky University.

It may seem like an embarrassing admission to make in a magazine that produces the world’s most influential international university rankings, but I mistrust academic league tables: I can never convince myself that there are suitable criteria for comparisons of value. I cannot bear to read the listings because rich, old and prestigious institutions exert routine, predictable preponderance. Of course, Harvard University is insuperable for wealth, recruiting power, research funding, social cachet, networking opportunities, quality of plant and for the size of the library. But if we shift focus and ask how much difference an undergraduate education at Harvard (or Yale or Princeton or Stanford or Oxford or Cambridge or any of their elite lookalikes) makes to most of their students’ lives, we have to acknowledge that it probably doesn’t amount to very much. . . .

A few years ago in this column I mentioned Northern Kentucky as one of a number of like-minded places that I visited on a lecture tour of the US. I reported that the history department was outstanding and inspiring, although I have never heard of any international league table that reflects its merits. Two Northern Kentucky undergraduates have now stepped forward to demonstrate the excellence of the place. Andrew Boehringer and Shane Winslow are both joint majors in history and anthropology. They like exploring Cincinnati, Ohio, the city on the university’s doorstep. Their studies made them see it with an academic eye. One of Cincinnati’s charms is precipitate, higgledy-piggledy topography, connected by some 400 old public stairways, up and down which many generations of pedestrians have tramped in defiance of the cult of the automobile. . . .

They were already working their way through college, but they provided all the funding they needed themselves by undertaking even more paid jobs, including a lot of menial work. When asked why they made the sacrifice, they appeal to love of the subject. They have taken their project into comparative terrain, looking at other cases around the world of cities set on hills with staircase frameworks. Now, as they approach graduation, they are turning their results into a book that will be a remarkable contribution to urban history, which they tentatively but cunningly entitle Descent: A History of the Cincinnati Steps. I wish I had known about it when I was at work on my chapter on the colonial history of Latin American cities in the Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History, because some of the places I wrote about have similar topographical challenges to those that shaped Cincinnati; yet I never even thought of focusing on stairways. I’m sure readers will know many other cases of similarly inspired, groundbreaking work by undergraduates. Some of those cases will have unfolded at Harvard and other privileged places. But I doubt whether any elite university exceeds or even equals Northern Kentucky’s history department in transformative power.

Well, Northern Kentucky has an amazing faculty . . . .