The Advantages of a Nonelite Education

UNA-Walkway

The University of North Alabama, my alma mater, located in Florence, Alabama.

I do not possess an elite education, but I’ve never regretted that fact.  Indeed, I’m proud of it.

I earned my two undergraduate degrees from the University of North Alabama (UNA), a regional university in the northwest corner of my native state, located some 20 miles from the small town where I was raised.

UNA turned out to be the perfect choice for me, a thoroughly ambivalent high school student.  History and politics were the only things that really interested me in high school.  My grades and my lopsided ACT score attested to that fact. My two proudest achievements as a high school student were extracurricular: serving as student body president and being selected as “Most Likely to Succeed” by my senior classmates.  But I left Russellville High School in the late spring of 1979 with a thoroughly undistinguished academic record.

The Quest for Academic Redemption

UNA offered an opportunity to redeem myself academically.   Still, I have always suspected that my mother and other University of Alabama alumni in my family were disappointed with my decision.  Regional universities have always garnered their share of critics, especially among people who are old enough to remember when these institutions were simply state colleges only an upgrade removed from teacher training institutions.

The late educational writer Loren Pope, a vocal cheerleader for liberal arts colleges and a fierce critic of the Ivy League, served up one of the most damning indictments of all, referring to regional universities as “retreaded teacher’s colleges.”  Other educational pundits have offered similarly derisive descriptions  — “third-tier institutions” and the “stepchildren of four-year higher educational institutions.”

The Pros and Cons of Regional Institutions

Some of these criticisms are justified.

Based on my own experiences, the first two years of a regional university were worth the cost of tuition.  And that fact appears to hold as true today as it did 37 years ago when I enrolled as a freshman at UNA. Freshman- and sophomore-level courses typically are taught by seasoned, tenured faculty rather than by overworked, psychologically frazzled graduate students.  Class sizes also tend to be small.

However, there is a countervailing effect.  The immense advantages students enjoy in the first couple of years are offset by the fact that 300- and 400-level courses are taught by the same instructors.

While a regional university professor who teaches a 400-level genetics course may know a lot about the subject, his or her knowledge typically does not compare to a flagship university professor who has written several books about genetics and emerged as a national authority in the field.

This became apparent to me after enrolling as a graduate student in the University of Alabama’s School of Communication in the mid-1980’s.  The professor who taught my graduate-level course in broadcast management at Alabama wrote the textbook that was used in my undergraduate management course at UNA. I also noticed that most undergraduates in UA’s communication program not only were exposed to considerably more diverse subject matter but were also taught by professors with substantially wider ranges of academic expertise.

Funding shortfalls have also been a perennial challenge for regional universities— the principal reason  why these institutions are typically unable to provide their students with the range of courses virtually taken for granted at flagship universities.

The Critical Distinction

Despite these deficiencies, I harbor few, if any, regrets.  Regional universities, despite these shortcomings, hold one distinct advantage over flagship universities:  the thorough dedication of their faculty.

My UNA professors not only provided me with a thorough grounding in introductory courses but also with something equally as valuable: a lifelong zeal for learning. I’ve been a voracious reader since college, rising at 5:30 a.m. every day to tackle my latest book.  I’ve striven to read deeply in a wide range of subject areas, not only history and politics but also philosophy, theology, language and technology.

My undergraduate professors evinced not only a zeal for learning but also determination to pass this enthusiasm on to students.

The Grand Irony of Higher Education

In a seminal essay that was later developed into a book, William Deresiewicz, the product of the Ivy League but a searing critic of elite education, has outlined one of the grand ironies of this nation’s higher education system: that woefully underfunded regional universities generally do a far better job providing undergraduate students with a sense of meaning and purpose than many of this nation’s Ivy League institutions.

That was certainly my experience almost two generations ago. I may have not graduated UNA with as nuanced an understanding of my disciplines as a graduate from Harvard, or Yale, or even from Alabama or Ole Miss, but I left with a profound reverence for the value of learning — a reverence that I attribute to a handful of truly gifted, dedicated, and exceptional scholars.

Leatrice Timmons

Even after completing a 29-year career as a communications specialist at a Research I university working with scores of tenured professors, I still consider the late UNA English Professor Leatrice Timmons as one of the most exceptional scholars I’ve ever known. A graduate of Florence State Teachers College who later earned her MA at the University of Mississippi, she rose only to the rank of associate professor, never acquiring a doctorate.   Yet, I’ve never encountered anyone with a more thoroughgoing knowledge of English and American literature, particularly Southern literature.  Her mastery of the English language was equally impressive: Her crisp, refined Southern accent was augmented by a dauntingly large vocabulary.

Sitting in her classroom, I recall thinking time and again: “I want to be as knowledgeable, to speak as eloquently,  and to attain as daunting a command of the English language as Leatrice Timmons!”

Hassan Abdul-Hadi

Other professors left deep impressions.  I will never forget the dedication of the long deceased Hassan Abdul-Hadi, my sociology professor, another brilliant and dedicated scholar who proudly displayed his Phi Kappa Phi pin on his watch chain and who frequently extolled the humanizing effects of a liberal education.  Almost two generations later, I still recall his frequent admonishment: “All you Americans are interested in is earning a degree to make money, and after graduation, most of you will never crack a book — a shame, because a college education should be regarded as the gateway to a lifetime of learning.”

I, for one, was thankful for that upbraiding, and I’ve struggled for the past 37 years to be an outlier.

Frank B. Mallonee

The recently deceased Dr. Frank Mallonee was a beloved professor of political science whose grandiloquent lecturing style, impeccable manners and immaculate clothes established him as one of the most iconic instructors at UNA. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Emory University, he always regarded his singular education as the basis for serving and advancing aspiring scholars rather than as credentials that set him apart from ordinary mortals.

Eugene Balof

Finally, I recall the late Dr. Eugene Balof, my debate coach, speech communication professor, and principal undergraduate mentor, who held the gold standard in his field: a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri.  Gene could have taught in any elite school in the country, but aside from his passion for teaching, he also felt a deep obligation to enrich and ennoble the lives of comparatively disadvantaged students, the ones like me who didn’t ace their ACT exams but who nonetheless envinced a passion for learning and at least a modicum of promise.  He set so many standards for me: a voracious appetite for reading driven by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and an indefatigable drive to ascertain the truth, no matter where it led.

Others come to mind: Paul E. Jones, III, and his brother Jimmy, two teachers with an all-consuming passion for spoken language; Abel F. DeWitt, who struggled valiantly to carry on his zeal for teaching despite the effects of a debilitating stroke; W. A. Ikerman, whose enthusiasm for the lessons and ironies of history was infectious; and Robert Allen Holder, a drama professor, whose voice and diction course, by freeing me of a pronounced Appalachian accent, turned out to the be the most useful undergraduate course I took.

Not a week passes that I don’t think about these exceptional teachers.  Like most regional university professors, they will not be remembered as scholars who pioneered new insights or who shattered long-held academic shibboleths, but they ennobled countless lives. I have tried, however modestly, to incorporate their passion for scholarship and excellence into my own life.

They were simply teachers who gave a damn about students, many of whom were unexceptional high school students like me who were looking for a second chance.  They not only educated us, they inspired us, and the course of inspiring us they instilled us with a sense of purpose and a passion for excellence.

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About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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