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How to Choose a College: A Primer

One of the most sensible brief reflections on this subject comes from my friend Stephen Blackwood, president of the gestating Ralston College in Savannah, GA, which when it opens in a year or two will offer a classical curriculum to a small number of students more serious about education than they are about the credential racket or partying. Stephen has a thoughtful essay at the website of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy on the question of “How to Choose a College.”

Two choice tidbits: one sociological, or at least social; the other intellectual. “[O]n a tour for prospective students at an Ivy League university near New York,” he writes:

I was shown a Glee-inspired music video that featured residence rooms and social life but made no mention of classes or academics. It might as well have been describing a cruise vacation. Similarly, some colleges offer “pet-friendly dormitories” or “apartment-style” accommodation.

If you find such marketing campaigns attractive, you might ask yourself what you’re looking for, because it certainly isn’t an education.

Indeed. Then there is the matter of what is taught. Here Stephen offers a bit of advice that goes to the very heart of liberal arts education:

Avoid colleges whose courses don’t have students engage with original sources. Would you be reading Plato, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen, or merely reading what other people have said about them? You want to encounter the books and ideas that change lives directly, not through a pre-packaged conclusion.

A focus on primary sources is not a perfect prophylactic against the viruses of multiculturalism and political correctness. But if the sources are thoughtfully chosen -- Shakespeare, not Maya Angelou; Aristotle, not Jacques Derrida -- then at least you are dealing with the building blocks of genuine education.

As I say, I am not sure that the institution of higher education in its current incarnation can be retaken or reformed. But it can be revolutionized, and one way that might happen is by the proliferation of genuine alternatives to the status quo. Stephen Blackwood’s Ralston College offers one such alternative. Check it out. I for one hope it thrives.