“A university,” poet John Ciardi acidly observed, “is what a college becomes when the faculty loses interest in students.” Add this contemporary counterpunch: A college is what a university becomes when its faculty and administrators lose interest in truth. Though liberal arts colleges don’t acknowledge it in the snazzy brochures they express-mail to high school seniors, many elements of all but the best institutions–the modest franchises, the flimsy finances, the self-preservationist instincts of timeserving faculty–subvert the visionary claims historically made on behalf of higher education.
That “genus gap” between aspirational ideal and quotidian reality may explain what draws protean novelists like Philip Roth and Francine Prose to campus, following in the tracks of such earlier anthropologists as Mary McCarthy, Randall Jarrell and Bernard Malamud. With the exception of Christian churches, no American institutions provide so much yawning space between appearance and reality for the novelist of manners to explore. Like Christian churches, charged to live up to the Gospel ideal of love with frail humans driven by what-Jesus-wouldn’t-do motives, liberal arts colleges–also handicapped by the challenge of getting good help–march to an oratorical drumbeat of truth and free speech designed for great universities, but imposed on less august institutions as well, and portentous enough to put grown women and men to sleep at commencement time.
“He who enters a university walks on hallowed ground,” James Bryant Conant declared at the Harvard tercentenary in 1936, and subsequent declaimers of higher-ed ideology have kept the faith. Harvard’s Nathan Pusey asserted in the thick of academe’s McCarthy-minded fifties that the task was “to keep alive in young people the courage to dare to speak the truth, to be free, to establish in them a compelling desire to live greatly and magnanimously.” Robert M. Hutchins likewise declared that the university “is not a kindergarten; it is not a club; it is not a reform school; it is not a political party; it is not an agency of propaganda…. Freedom of inquiry, freedom of discussion, and freedom of teaching–without these a university cannot exist…. The university exists only to find and to communicate the truth. If it cannot do that, it is no longer a university.”
Against those boosterish toasts to the campus as Free Thought U. ran a countertradition of disdain for higher education’s mustiness, an attitude already expressed in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations gibe at the university as a “sanctuary in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices find shelter and protection after they have been hunted out of every corner of the world.” Only in recent times, and distinctively in America, have the university and college been seen as repositories of the new and obnoxiously ephemeral.
Whatever their proper niches in the respective oeuvres of Francine Prose and Philip Roth, the new novels from these prolific masters share this: They precisely inspect a subregion of the American “acascape”–the tony New England liberal arts college–exposing the peculiar corruptions of an environment outsiders frequently consider close to paradise. Both books transcend their settings, expanding into complicated literary accomplishments. But both books also drill home lessons about small-time academe that no April visit to campus, accompanied by your gangly 17-year-old, can provide.