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The Merton College Mob Quad at Oxford.  Photo: Courtesy of DWR. 

I may be a deplorable, but I don’t deplore the immense strides that the West, particularly the United States and Britain, have made in higher education within the last couple of centuries.

Oxbridge detractors are calling on Britain’s two elite institutions – Oxford and Cambridge – to scrap undergraduate education altogether and to function exclusively as graduate institutions. This, they contend, would eliminate much of the rank and privilege that are bound up in these ancient institutions and that have allowed its graduates to vault to the very highest reaches of polite society.

I personally perceive this as egalitarian sentiment run amok.

As much a I detest the present-day American ruling class, our civilization has derived immense material advantages from elite educational systems, such as Oxbridge and the Ivy League, that have afforded the most intellectually gifted among us not only an exposure to some of the greatest thinkers of our present day but also a critical means of networking. To put it another way, great benefits have been derived from concentrating our cognitive elites in relatively confined locations. And if undergraduate education were scrapped at Oxbridge and, ultimately, at the Ivy League, we would accomplish nothing aside from dispersing this talent across a wider scale and depriving them of these unusually condensed learning and networking opportunities.

Even so, it’s worth pointing out that many of the this country’s Nobel laureates in Medicine and Chemistry no longer come from the Ivy League. An increasing number come from public Research I universities and, in a few cases, from solid liberal arts colleges – a remarkable fact that author Malcolm Gladwell raises in his book Outliers.The Story of Success. These institutions include Antioch College, DePauw University, Holy Cross College, Hunter College and the University of Illinois.

While I am no academic – only a mere laymen who finds these sorts of discussions fascinating – my hunch is that many Research I universities and quite few of our well-regarded liberal arts colleges ultimately will ascend to levels comparable to the Ivy League.

Indeed, I think that one already can make the case that the honors programs at many Research I universities already are producing students with knowledge and expertise equal to or, perhaps in some cases, even surpassing those of their Ivy League counterparts. And in time, perhaps, these institutions will evolve the dense networking attributes that still tend to distinguish the Ivy League from other institutions.

While many institutions in this country and the West arguably are going to hell in the proverbial hand basket, America and Britain, in particular, have developed one of the most remarkably effective – not to mention, adaptive – institutions the world has ever known: higher education.

Instead of dismantling the best of the best of these higher educational institutions, I would like to see governments and other major sources of funding and endowments working to ensure that the advantages of elite education are extended to more remote parts of the United States.