In these dreary economic times where unemployment and underemployment make daily headlines along with seemingly unsolvable quagmires in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, more and more literature is predicting the eventual and perhaps already apace economic and political descent of the American global juggernaut. The American dream that impelled countless immigrants to depart their homelands in the pursuit of a freer, richer, and more just lifestyle is becoming harder and more cumbersome to attain. Education, specifically higher education, is now widely acknowledged as a prerequisite to enter the gates of the middle class. American universities, despite billions in losses from the ongoing recession, remain extraordinarily prominent in international rankings and in the minds of students and parents from Cairo, Egypt to Canton, China.
In other words, what is an American-style university and why is it so popular around the world?
Modern scholars often describe an American-style education as liberal, pluralistic, conducive to differences of opinion, and student-centered – all of which allows pupils to develop not only complex critical thinking skills but a spirit of innovation, entrepreneurship, and bottomless confidence and aptitude in writing, reading, and speaking the language of instruction. An American-style education regularly operates in English but may be adopted in non-English speaking societies if administrators recognize the merits of implementation (Ghabra and Arnold, 2007).
The esteemed reputation of the American-style university cannot be disentangled from the international brand of universities such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale – otherwise known as the “Big Three.” Consistently perching atop international university rankings, America’s elite institutions of higher education have produced several generations of world leaders in a multitude of professions. These rankings have a near-obsessive following in developing nations and contribute to the glamour and prestige of an American-style university. From Beijing to Beirut, American-style campuses are dotting the educational landscape and attempting to recreate culturally-differentiated conceptions of an American-style education.
If an American-style education may fluctuate according to cultural idiosyncrasies, perhaps the glorified notion of an American education is more idealistic than realistic. Take this country for example: American classrooms are far from universally student-centered and proficient in generating solid readers, writers, and speakers of English. Classrooms in many inner-city communities are less breeding grounds for tolerance than laboratories for discrimination, prejudice, and marginalization. With a newfound focus on standardization and quantitative measurements of student achievement, memorization and repetitive exercises take precedence over creative writing and exploratory brainstorming. Therefore, the essence of an American-style university is regrettably absent from many American classrooms and campuses today.
Historically, the oldest and most prestigious American universities served only the white, male, Protestant elite who came from families of dignity and notable lineage. Pluralistic was certainty not a word used to characterize universities in the 1800s or early 1900s. Moreover, students at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale in the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th century were far from academically ambitious and sufficiently challenged. Students at the time concentrated their energies not on hitting the books and libraries but on hitting the football field and maneuvering to enter the most coveted final clubs, eating clubs, and senior societies (Karabel, 2005). Since students spent minimal time studying and were preoccupied with extracurricular activities, the college experience at the most selective institutions remarkably contrasts with the rigorous, student-centered notion of an American education today.
Given the immense changes that have occurred within American higher education, no consistent conception of American-style education exists. From the two-year community college to the elite corridors of the Ivy League, American colleges and universities employ a multitude of teaching strategies and operate in such diverse environments that preclude simplistic generalizations. Indeed, the next time an American-style university opens around the world, one ought to question its methodological origins instead of blindly accepting claims of American-style authenticity, which frequently escapes easy description, even in America.
1. Ghabra, Shafeeq., Arnold, Margreet (2007). Studying the American Way: An Assessment of American-Style Higher Education in Arab Countries. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus #71.
2. Karabel, Jerome. (2005). The Chosen: the Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.