The dividing wall between public and private is thinning, isn’t it? And even though later-boomer parents are determined to get their kid into the fanciest school possible, paying huge fees for private coaching and SAT-prep, state universities are most usefully serving their students by looking towards the future rather than invoking the past, admitting those for whom success is a right rather than an inheritance.

I teach at a public university. Let me tell you why.

I was the first woman in my family to go to college, practically the first to graduate from high school in a timely fashion. I entered Dartmouth in 1975.

Except in my case it was more like breaking and entering.

Not only was I one in of the first classes of women, but I also appeared to be the only person whose last name ended in a vowel; Michael Corleone was the only other Sicilian to have gone there, and he was fictional. Sure, I was grateful for—and good at working—the system: I was the first woman to be named Alumni Scholar, and one of the first to receive a Reynolds Fellowship. I put them to good use.

I graduated early and used the Fellowship to go to New Hall (now Murray Edwards College), a women’s college at Cambridge University.

After Cambridge (which was glorious—and the equivalent of a state-school), however, I ended up on 42nd Street, just as several of my family members had predicted, although not for the reasons they imagined.

The Graduate Center of CUNY was there (now it’s in what forever will remain for me the old B. Altman’s building on 34th Street) and CUNY is where I wanted to be.

Okay, so I backed into a Ph.D. program. I was working full-time for television network and adjuncting at night at Queens College (more about being an adjunct in a later post—lots more). My students were recent immigrants, young mothers, retired sanitation workers; they ranged in age from 18 to 81. Their skill levels, like their points of origin, were all over the map: there were Talmudic scholars who had read for more every day than I ever would, and there were students who maybe had a read an article in TV Guide in its entirety once. But I realized that teaching in those Quonset huts—where some of the English Department classrooms were lodged in those days—was more satisfying, engaging, useful, and fun than any work I was doing for WNET or WABC. I had to teach and teach at a college level; I had to get a doctorate.

I already had student loans from Dartmouth and I hesitated get further into debt. When I thought about Columbia, NYU, Princeton, and Yale (which I did—of course I did) I measured my needs against what they could offer me. It didn’t work. CUNY would let me teach (“let me” being an interesting phrase, really, as I write it, but it was how I felt), work part-time in the Queens College development office, and continue to teach in the evenings while I took classes. It seemed perfectly fair.

I took every class I could, auditing the ones in which I wasn’t actually enrolled, and so had the privilege to study with Caws, with Brownstein, with Levin, with Day, with Timko, with Bonaparte, and with the man who became my advisor, Gerhard Joseph, and I loved their classes. They encouraged me to attend conferences, to present papers, to write articles and essays for publication; I followed their advice. They said I had to be twice as good as any doctoral candidate from a more prestigious university and I cribbed the old feminist line “Luckily, that’s not too difficult.”

I had to finish the degree as swiftly as I could because I needed a full-time job and to get that full-time job I needed to have made myself a member of the profession before I officially entered it. That, too, seemed fair enough. Who has time to sleep in grad school, anyway, whether or not you’re being productive? I took out loans when I was writing my dissertation in order to give myself a semester where all I did was write. Those three months were a luxury no subsequent sabbatical could ever match.

And I consider my time at the Graduate Center a luxury as well, in much the same way that I consider teaching at the University of Connecticut a privilege. 

Because, let’s face it, what goes on in the actual classrooms of public institutions is as good as, if not better than, what goes on in those antebellum buildings on those ivied campuses.

In these days of instant access to all manner of scholarly materials and of rising standards for professionalism among all manner of college instructors (I for one don’t believe the standards are “too high” or in danger of being anywhere near that mark at any institution, private or public), the essential differences between an education at a private school and a state one are most evident outside the small rooms or lectures halls where actual teaching and learning takes place.

As for arguments that “learning takes place everywhere,” those are dandy when making points about how lacrosse, pottery, and fraternity houses are part of venerable traditions. But the arguments seem to me less effective when the well-rehearsed choral voices are broken down into individual mutters and roars, school songs, or team-chants.

So when asked why I teach at a state school, or why a student might choose to attend a public university rather than a private one, I often reply with a line that one of the Corleone’s associates might use: Leave the ivy. Take the education.

First published in The Chronicle of Higher Education

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