Interesting essay by Kevin Carey on what a university is: not a "unified teaching organization" but a bunch of separate departments and courses held together by school colors and a football team. It is, says Carey, folly to evaluate the quality of a whole university, because departments and professors vary so much even on the same campus. And this explains, he says, why studies consistently fail to find that what college they go to makes much difference in how much students learn: that depends much more on their own initiative in seeking out the best courses than their school mascot. The reason students at top schools do better, Carey argues, has more to do strict admissions requirements than anything that happens once the students arrive on campus.
Two thoughts: first, universities have been like this for as long as there have been universities. Medieval universities seem to have held both great scholars and a mob who spent most of their time drinking and whoring. Just now I'm listening to a biography of Woodrow Wilson, and it struck me that Princeton during his tenure was two separate institutions, one for ambitious scholars and one for social climbers obsessed with getting into the right fraternity. When Wilson tried to ban the fraternities and get the whole school to focus on academics, he was blocked by wealthy alumni and then kicked upstairs to the governor's mansion, replaced by a genial president who understood the college's social role.
Second, Carey's argument isn't entirely right. I do believe that a motivated young person can learn a lot at almost any American university; at a less selective school a young prodigy might get personal attention from professors that would more than make up for the lack of broad opportunities. But a school like Harvard or Berkeley does offer opportunities than a less prestigious school does not, including the opportunity to make friends with the equally ambitious. For me the great thing about Yale was that for the first time in my life I did not feel like my thirst for knowledge made me unusual; I went from being a weirdo brain to fairly average, and I loved it. Also, the most demanding courses at Yale were demanding at a very high level, with reading lists that went well beyond anything I have ever had the nerve to assign, and an expectation (met or not) that the students would read these books and understand them.
Education, as I often say, is mysterious and hard, and there is probably no way to design a university that would work for everyone. But we have many that offer students amazing opportunities, if they choose to take them.