What is it really?

Have you ever thought about what college really is?

In my Organizational Studies class, we read Robert Birnbaum’s piece, How Colleges Work. In it, Birnbaum elaborates on the idea that the collegiate system is an anarchical system, a model that can also be described as an “organized anarchy.” Defined by three characteristics, the system has problematic goals, unclear technology, and fluid participation. Much like some authors like Homer and A. Bartlett Giamatti, Birnbaum connects his argument to a sports match and games. Intrigued by the comparison, his piece proposes an interesting way to think of what college really may be, whether it be an anarchy or other type of dominant power.

“Imagine that you’re either the referee, coach, player, or spectator at an unconventional soccer match: the field for the game is round; there are several goals scattered haphazardly around the circular field; people can enter and leave the game whenever they want to; the entire game takes place on a sloped field; and the game is played as if it makes sense.”

Now his point seems blurred within this excerpt: How is an unconventional soccer game an example of organized anarchy? It depicts a setting that appears chaotic, where the players do whatever they want, and rules aren’t a prominent part of the game. Yet, according to Birnbaum, there is still organized structure to it. He states, “Roles are specified, the players stay on an officially designated field (by and large), and they usually throw balls rather than bricks or marshmallows. Moreover, the participants can make sense of what is happening (although their versions may differ) even if the observer cannot.” When thinking of the game at first, being able to compare it to anarchical system seems far-fetched, let alone comparing it to how a university is run. But it makes sense. Faculty at a university sets the stage. They provide the playing field for which students compete, and provide various goals for students to aim for. It’s up to the students at that point to choose how they want to play their game and what goals they want shoot at. Rules are up to the students as well: they decide when when they want to learn, how they want to learn, whether or not they go to class, and how much effort they put into their work.

A visual example of organized anarchy.

A visual example of organized anarchy.

Is that what college really is then? An anarchical system? Surely one man’s argument cannot justifiably sum up the college system as a whole, but when analyzing other similar authors, the supporting argument has been prominent in many pieces. More specifically, it’s exemplified in the second article I read this fall.

Louis Menand’s piece, Live and Learn, Why We Have College, talks about the three theories of how universities are set up. Menand defines college as a “four-year intelligence test”  that is used as a way for students to demonstrate their intellect through the courses they take. When analyzing the three theories, one can question what the goals of the university really are. They are problematic (fitting the definition Birnbaum supplies) and unclear, where some may think the goal is to supply job opportunities while others argue it as a way to improve upon basic intelligence and skills. The collegiate system also has fluid participation. While talking about the increasing global demand for American-style higher education, Menand explains, “Students all over the world want to come here, and some American universities, including NYU and Yale, are building campuses overseas.”  The system is set up perfectly in order to maintain an organized anarchy. They supply students with teachers and resources to be successful, leaving the students with the idea that they control their future. But who is really in control? Can you get a job without going through “the system”?

Being a college student, I’ve never really looked at the big picture. The idea of a university being an anarchical system seems foolish, but when you take a step back and actually analyze how the system is set up, who is really in charge?

3 thoughts on “What is it really?

  1. The American Education system is unique. I would say my mentality towards college would be to get a job following my graduation. Sure, it is an experience and I hope to become a better individual through it but my main focus is to get a job. There are many routes towards achieving a degree, such as what kind of degree, what major, what classes to take, and everything in between.


  2. I think college is set up as a well-functioning system, left in the hands of students ultimately giving them the control. The ideas expressed in this blog aren’t only relevant to collegiate education, but they can be found in all other levels of education as well. Teachers and other resources are always a given, but it’s the students responsibility and choice to go to class, engage in the learning, and do the assignments to the best of their ability. With this being said, I don’t think this critique only applies to colleges and universities, but rather the education system as a whole.


  3. Hi anne12elaine,

    I found your blog post really intriguing. You analyzed the college system in a way that I had never thought before. In fact, I partially agree with your analysis that the higher education system is indeed an anarchical system. However, I would argue that this definition doesn’t have any negative connotations. It is just a system that is most desirable. From my point of view, the reason for college to be an anarchical system is that everyone can get his/her own experience out of the system. If someone values GPA, he could make his college experience as a intelligence competition. On the other hand, if someone values social network building, then the college is essentially a social network for her. What I want to express is that such an anarchical system is actually the most desirable state for American colleges. People go through the system, connecting them from immaturity to maturity, and each get his personal experience out of it. I guess this is why college is always considered as a magical place by a lot of people.


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