A Comprehensive Answer to which Elite College is Best

You've probably heard alumni of Harvard and Yale sneering at each other, while wondering whether either of them really know as much as they think they do. A better question may be whether they know the right things. Thanks to the Open Syllabus project, we can now say which of these universities offers the best education. The answer is: the University of Chicago, with the University of Pennsylvania in second place.

I make this judgment based on the most-read books in their courses; obviously it doesn't measure how well the books are taught. Still, in any university much depends on the student. The University of Chicago list is short on Plato and Homer, but is overall the strongest list. The Princeton list, by contrast, contains only three books of lasting value: Thucydides, Schumpeter, and Henry Kissenger's Diplomacy. (I suppose some people would argue for Weber.) Harvard's list is likewise mostly fashionable noise, although it has a few highlights: Dr. King's letter, Machiavelli, and Rawls (though reading Rawls without Aristotle is like making a stew out of a rich marrow bone, and then just eating the bone).

Yale's list has both works of Homer's, which is good, and I thought Ralph Ellison's book was very insightful (but of interest probably chiefly to Americans). They also read Tocqueville (also especially of interest to Americans). Amazingly, you have to go all the way down the list to Columbia to get Kant; but it is to their credit that the work you then encounter is the later Metaphysics of Morals, and not the earlier and more-often read Groundwork. The latter is much more famous because it is where he lays out the overarching moral theory, including three formulations of the Categorical Imperative. But the later work offers a much richer picture of his actual moral vision. He anticipated JS Mill's harm principle, although he isn't usually credited for doing so, in his division between cases where state coercion is acceptable, and cases that are moral questions but matters for individual virtue. And it is only in the late work that you learn how completely he believed his Groundwork concepts would recreate Christian morality from the ground of pure practical reason.

The University of Chicago, however, gives first place to Aristotle -- the top two places are for Aristotle's Ethics, most likely always the Nicomachean Ethics but possibly occasionally the less-read Eudemian Ethics. They also read Kant's late work, St. Augustine, and both famous works of Machiavelli. (His Art of War is of no interest except for students of period warfare, as he has largely dramatized Vegetius with very few updates, none of which turn out to be of universal or lasting value).

The University of Pennsylvania is not as philosophically strong, but does include several excellent dramatic approaches to understanding life. Chaucer, Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, Sophocles, and Benjamin Franklin join Plato there, not rising to inclusion on the most read lists anywhere else. It's a good list, and marks a different approach but a valid one.


Gringo said...

Sounds as if the University of Chicago's Great Books program has helped it weather the storm better than most. Thank you, Robert Hutchins.

E Hines said...

Machiavelli and Tocqueville in college is a big deal? We read those in high school in upstate Illinois. Along with Chaucer, Conrad, and Sophocles. And a few others. Read a lot of heathen Greek mythology (today, sainted), too.

My mother took some heat when she introduced Chaucer; some of the parents weren't...comfortable...with his dirty stories. We all survived.

Eric Hines

Assistant Village Idiot said...

HPYS selects the highest IQ's. They have some excellent professors.

That is all.

Grim said...

I'm sure that's true, although I've read that high IQs can actually serve as a bar to effective communication if it's beyond a standard deviation's difference. Thus, an excellent professor requires excellent students.

HPYS claims that it recruits the best students as well, but I'm not sure that's really true.

Likewise, as helpful as high IQ is to most any task, it operates on what you put in front of it. If you put Thucydides or Homer in front of it, you'll get a better result than if you put Principles of Corporate Finance in front of it.

douglas said...

That may be true, AVI, but beyond intelligence, I'd prefer my child go to a college where wisdom is also valued. If it even exists anymore, though this post gives one a glimmer of hope. Of there's Hillsdale College.

Any thoughts on that school, Grim?

Grim said...

The core curriculum looks reasonably good, although there are dangers in combining philosophy and religion into a single department. Philosophy of religion is a very important and under-taught discipline, but it is a subset of philosophy that shouldn't overwhelm it. Likewise, there's some advantage to studying physics and metaphysics together and then working out how it fits with your religion, rather than studying physics separately and then trying to figure out how to make it work with the religion and metaphysics you studied together. Historically, those who have done the former have come up with better answers of more lasting value.

douglas said...

That's interesting- I don't know why they combined the departments, but it could be as much logistical as ideological as it's a small college and I've no doubt there's overlap on instructors of those courses.

I like what I've heard about HIllsdale over the years, both from subscribing to Imprimis, and later hearing Dr. Arn on Hugh Hewitt's weekly hour of radio where they march through Western Civilization- "The Hillsdale Dialogues". They started with Homer, and they've come all the way up to Churchill (on whom Dr. Arn is an expert, and just released a biography of Churchill). I've not listened to them all, but try to when I can catch them live, and podcasts when I have a little time.

Back to the issue of schools- Do you think that it's preferable to go to a major university and confront the modern culture and educational establishment or to seek out a place like Hillsdale that not only provides a sound education, but stresses morality and faith as well, but at the risk of being a bit in an ideological bubble? By the way, did I mention Hillsdale takes ZERO federal funds so as not to be handcuffed by federal regulations?