Deep thinkers missing in action

Even at elite campuses, some students and faculty fret over anti-intellectualism

Cheerleaders for a collegiate chess team? It may sound odd, but the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, doesn't mind going to such lengths to celebrate smarts.

In an effort to draw more academically talented students, this mid-size research institution offers scholarships to top chess players. It recently won the American Intercollegiate Chess Championship for the sixth time, handily surmounting intellectual bastions such as Harvard, Stanford, and Yale.

This strategy has not won the school millions in advertising revenue. Nor has it magically vaulted it into the Ivy League. But President Freeman Hrabowski says it sends a signal to prospective students that if they cherish the life of the mind, they will feel at home at UMBC.

"We want to counter the anti-intellectual thread that runs across higher education, even [at] the best schools," Dr. Hrabowski says. "People often know about an institution because of a winning football team. How often do you hear about a university known for sending large numbers of students on to graduate programs, professional schools, or community service? We're talking about a need for balance."

Critical thinking, self-examination, and the questioning of assumptions are all widely genuflected to as part of any good college education. But that's not what's happening on many college campuses, he and others argue.

American higher education has long had a dynamic tension between intellectualism - represented by the humanities and elite colleges - and more "practical" education offered up by land-grant universities, observers say.

But while the US university system is widely hailed for its quality, some fear the pendulum may be swinging toward an overall anti- intellectual approach.

"You can party a lot, ski a lot, and still do well and not be that intellectual," says Michael Newton, a junior majoring in government at Dartmouth College. "At Dartmouth, it's not that cool to be intellectual. It's much cooler to be outdoorsy. At Yale, my friends say it's cooler to be urban trendy."

Sports aren't the only culprit

At public universities, much of the blame for anti- intellectualism tends to be laid on big-money sports programs (see story, left).

Murray Sperber, a professor at Indiana University, says a "beer-and-circus culture" has permeated much of public higher education, often substituting for solid intellectual growth among undergraduates. He traces this phenomenon, in part, to an attitude prevalent in society that college is merely a means to a well-paid job.

"It's always anti-intellectual when the most important thing in life is making money," Dr. Sperber says.

And it's not just an issue at big-time sports schools. Some may be surprised to realize that anti-intellectualism is also rearing its head in the Ivy League.

Take the "nerd" label. In a column in the Daily Princetonian, Prof. John Fleming recently opined that "even at Princeton, one will frequently hear echoes of a national culture that rewards people with an undisguised passion for knowledge and exact intellectual application with such appellations as nerd, geek and wonk."

Princeton students' open letter

Some students and faculty recently raised concerns about what they see as a paucity of intellectual ferment at the Princeton, N.J., campus.

"There seems to be a widespread belief that intellectual life in the classroom and in the dorms, colleges, and clubs is not what it should be," wrote the Undergraduate University Council in an open letter to the president Sept. 30.

"This problem of a lackluster intellectual culture manifests itself in various ways and in all aspects of undergraduate life."

Signed by 11 student leaders, the letter calls for an investigation into what has weakened intellectualism on campus. One suspect, the letter says, is a prevalent "work hard, play hard" mentality that leads to "a strict dichotomy between structured, résumé-building extracurricular activities and activities that provide a mindless release."

One Princeton professor, quoted in the open letter, jokes that faculty office hours are so underutilized they provide "the best time for solitary meditation."

In the face of such criticism, some observers caution that it would be a mistake to believe there was ever a "golden age" of intellectualism on campus.

The "gentleman's C," for instance, was acceptable at elite universities in decades past. When Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton (1902-1910), he introduced "precepts" - small discussion groups that are still part of the structure today - designed to improve the level of intellectual discourse.

But even these discussions now sometimes end up being "uninspiring" and "underwhelming," the letter says.

If students see their degrees as just credentials for jobs, they decide, "Hey, if it's not going to be graded, why study for it?" says Jason Navarino, a junior at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

In one of his precepts, the moderator would check a student's name off once he or she had participated in the discussion. "You had to speak at least once.... After they said something intelligent, everyone just sat back," Mr. Navarino says.

Objections to the anti-intellectual label

Already the letter may have accomplished what it intended. A faculty committee is examining the problem. And a hot campus debate has ensued, with many complaining the letter unfairly tars Princeton students as "anti-intellectual." It's something Joshua Anderson, one of the signers, is quick to deny.

"There's nothing bordering on an anti-intellectual culture at Princeton, and nobody frowns on intellectual pursuits," he says. "But there is an intense concern over what we'll be doing after graduation. Will you be making a lot of money or changing the world? ... Sometimes general intellectual pursuits fall by the wayside."

Some at Princeton aren't so quick to dismiss the idea that there may be a problem of anti-intellectualism by omission.

"It's possible to have kids who are very bright, capable, and hardworking, who are not necessarily intellectual in terms of being inquisitive, part of the life of the mind, in pursuit of knowledge for its own sake," says Aaron Friedberg, a professor at the Woodrow Wilson School.

"It's true that there is less of that kind of interest than you might hope for and want to see at a place like Princeton."

Deference to authority was another concern mentioned in the open letter. Princeton professors were quoted as saying that students were "disconcertingly comfortable with authority" or rarely challenged what a professor said.

"America is not a deeply intellectual culture," says Anthony Grafton, a history professor at Princeton. "[Intellectualism] is a countercultural value, not one that most people embrace. It's not what life in the suburbs is about, and most of our wonderfully bright students come from a well-off suburb."

'No reflection time' at Harvard

The challenge to reexamine intellectual culture spans far beyond Princeton.

For students with packed schedules on many elite campuses, dinnertime and weekends are more for blowing off steam than for discussing Ovid's "Metamorphoses" or lessons that the Yuan Dynasty might hold for modern globalization.

The Chronicle of Higher Education hosted a vigorous online debate in 2001 about whether most colleges were overlooking the way students ignore campus intellectual life.

At the center of the discussion was an article by Duke University's Prof. Stuart Rojstaczer entitled, "When Intellectual Life is Optional for Students."

"The hardest thing for students at Duke - and at most elite institutions - is getting in," he wrote. "Once admitted, a smart student can coast, drink far too much beer, and still maintain a B+ average."

At Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., the undergraduate curriculum is undergoing a top-to-bottom review.

The rich mix of lectures outside of class do seem well attended, but the hectic pace can sometimes work against deeper learning, says Sujean Lee, president of Harvard's undergraduate council.

"There is no reflection time whatsoever," says the senior biology major. "I don't even account for reflection in my schedule. The fact that I don't even think there needs to be reflection time is telling what values are at Harvard. I have a journal I rarely write in."

Many students seem to think they gain more from their extracurricular activities than from their classes, she adds.

For Hrabowski at UMBC, anti-intellectualism in higher education was summed up perfectly in the response to a recent speech he gave to a group of academics.

"I was making the case that universities should be celebrating the student who is accomplishing a lot in English literature as much, or more, than the student who's a great basketball player," he says. "Well, when I said that, they just laughed. They laughed! That's the problem we face."


The interplay of sports and smarts

Intercollegiate sports can have a corrosive effect on educational values, even on elite campuses. That's the thesis of "The Game of Life," a seminal book coauthored in 2001 by William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University.

But there's an active debate about how responsible sports are for what some see as an intellectual culture that's not living up to its potential at Princeton.

"Princeton does have a big-time sports culture," says history professor Anthony Grafton. "We actually have a much bigger proportion of recruited athletes than many people think. Athletics pose a challenge.... They do pull a lot of the energy away from students and what they may be doing in class."

English professor John Fleming has been writing a regular column for Princeton's student newspaper about the intellectual climate on campus. A former athlete, he enjoys campus sports, but notes misplaced priorities among some athletes on campus.

"When I meet someone at Princeton who says, 'I'm here to row,' I just figure, well, nobody should be here who isn't here to get a great education first and foremost," Dr. Fleming says.

Some students, however, are circumspect about the issue.

"I don't know whether athletics is a problem or not," says Jason Navarino, who is majoring in political science. "But there always seems to be the right number of running backs on the football team."

Dane Claussen, a professor at Point Park College in Pittsburgh, Pa., points to the NCAA's recent push for reform, which began in the early 1990s, as recognition of the problem of anti-intellectualism.

"It's kind of funny that athletics got a free ride on campus - so little scrutiny, for so long," he says. "I think, though, that with all the sports scandals on campus in the last few years, people are beginning to get a better picture of how the tail is wagging the dog."

In at least one place, though, the "big man on campus" is more likely to be a bespectacled chess player than a burly football player.

The chess team at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has cheerleaders, pep rallies, and road trips. It's a winning team of intellectual athletes - complete with nicknames like the "Hammer From Alabama."

The team's star is Alex "the Invincible" Onischuk, a hero to the nose-in-the-books set on campus. A 26-year-old Russian grand master, Mr. Onischuk once played Gary Kasparov, the world's top player, to a draw.

The school has sports teams, but it's the chess team that gets the most attention, just the way President Freeman Hrabowski likes it.

"In my mind, we spend much too much time overemphasizing athletics and underemphasizing intellectual activity," he says. "We wanted to focus on the life of the mind in a proactive way."

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