An Alma Alma Mater

As back to school season swings into full gear those of us who have long since completed our terminal degrees find our inboxes decorated with alumni association emails touting impending homecoming weekends and alumni events. Almost invariably these missives focus on opportunities to meet up at bars or attend sporting events, preceded or followed by an urge to “give back” by writing a fat check to one’s alma mater.

Some enlightened schools make a weak attempt to recruit their alumni to offer mentoring to current students or to encourage them to hire the next generation of their graduates. If one is particularly fortunate one’s alma mater might actually offer one or two academically oriented speakers at an event before asking for donations over hors d’oeuvres and of course DRINKS. But sadly, Alumni culture always seems to circle back to SPORTS, DRINKS , and DONATIONS.

The truth of the matter is that the big schools are just playing the numbers to maximize donations. One is lucky to find perhaps 14% of the student body dedicated to the love of learning for its intrinsic value.

Only this tiny core have a true sense of “my research” that makes them look beyond the mandates of the syllabus for ways to integrate different treads of knowledge and to bring that learning to bear in creative ways outside the lecture hall.

There is but a scant 14% imbued with The Academic Sublime — that sense of awe and wonder over the Ideal of the University as a force sustaining Civilization through the ages. This is the chill that goes up one’s spine setting foot on campus as one is overtaken by an awareness of the boundless potential of the Future. It is the Academic Sublime that gives rise to a soul sustaining optimism despite the sorry state of today’s Universities with their all too often watered down academics, party cultures, toxic political correctness, and ceaseless assaults on academic freedom.

Beyond the 14% there is a wide band of mediocre to good students who aren’t necessarily averse to learning, as long as it doesn’t clash with their politics or get in the way of their social lives. There is also a significant number who see college as a speed bump in the way of taking a position with friends or family, or who quite honestly just want to party.

Since, in aggregate, they don’t care about academics, but do represent the biggest slice of the donor pie, it makes sense to focus on offering them bread and circuses in the form of sports teams and alumni bar nights and booze cruises.

What this doesn’t do is provide the lost 14% with a way to continue to participate in the Intellectual Life of their Alma Mater. Only a tiny fraction of them will have found a birth as faculty at some other institution of higher education; and while the rest can participate in professional societies, those tend to be overly specialized and highly compartmentalized disciplinary silos devoid of the kind of interdisciplinary cross-fertilization that makes the Campus such a special kind of space.

They represent a huge untapped resource for our Universities of the Future! They are the very individuals whom we would have recruited as students had we been founded in time for their college years and who would now be our alumni had we been fortunate enough to have instructed them. They are largely alienated from their actual alma maters, many have funds they would be loath to donate to those schools, and all have rich bodies of experience, expertise, and intellectual insights that are seen as being utterly irrelevant by the universities they attended.

We can give them a home, we can help them network and found new ventures, we can tap their knowledge, we can give them the community to take their art, science, and commerce to the next level, we can adopt them and become their Alma Alma Mater!

N.B. We will explore exactly what this concept means and how it might be formalized as a League of Extraordinary Scholars embracing both disaffected alumni and potentially unlettered independent scholars and entrepreneurs in future posts.