I feel hesitant to write about what is or isn’t going on on college campuses these days because it’s been quite a while since my own student days; my visits in recent decades have been limited to short trips either to give guest talks or lectures or to drop off and pick up my son when he was an undergrad or to take in an occasional basketball game at George Washington U.; and although I have some friends and acquaintances in academe, we don’t often seem to discuss campus life and how it has or hasn’t changed over time.
So sure – I’ve covered subjects like the dangerous direct and indirect Chinese government presence in American colleges and universities, and about some of the conflicts that have broken out over how to deal with historical figures with racially charged records. (See, e.g., here.) But I can only recall one instance of even briefly mentioning the crucial matter of how well these institutions are or aren’t educating students and otherwise preparing them to be successful adults and informed citizens.
I’m focused on this matter today, however, because of two recent developments that seem amply to justify the deepest skepticism about the model of undergraduate education that’s become dominant in recent decades. The first entails the much remarked on force with which the CCP Virus has driven so much instruction on-line, and all the questions that this shift have intensified about the constantly surging costs and therefore value of a four-year degree – which of course includes the cost of campus physical plants that provide so many services that have little to do with education.
The second was the appearance last week of a Financial Times column that’s brilliantly alluded to a strong resulting suspicion of mine that keeps growing, and that surely is widely shared, if still rarely voiced explicitly. As author Oren Cass wrote in a piece covering many of higher education’s woes:
“It’s easy enough to disprove the economic claim that attending college promises them success, but much harder to refute the cultural message equating ‘not college material’ with ‘loser’. Worse, we advertise the college experience as an amusement park entitlement — a rite of passage filled with sports and parties, sex and alcohol, activities calendars overseen by cruise-ship directors called ‘campus life co-ordinators’, and, oh, classes that you should try to attend, all paid for by someone else or at some other time. Try convincing a teenager it would really be smarter to forgo that experience for a few years of hard work, an industry credential and some savings in the bank.”
And he further derides colleges today as “four-year summer camps” and “private playgrounds” for the children of the wealthy.
That second swipe unintentionally reminds us that major distinctions need to be made between private and public universities, and that therefore a latter day version of “Animal House” probably isn’t what most undergrads whatever their school are living.
But beyond the exaggeration and oversimplification, Cass points the way to a possibility that deserves full consideration, and it seems best expressed as a question. Let’s leave aside all the controversies raging today about political correctness and safe spaces and snowflakes and academic propagandizing. Let’s also table for now the serious and necessary discussion concerning whether higher education’s emphasis should be more vocational and professional and technical, or more purely academic.
The question remains – and it’s actually a series of questions: If a society wanted to transmit most effectively to its college-age youth the widest range of the knowledge and skills and experiences considered essential for later life both public and private, would it really be placing these late teens and early twenty-somethings in environments that are largely isolated physically? Where the basics of life are literally served up to them on a platter? Where none of the chores and responsibilities of independent adulthood need to be carried out or met? Where all of the adults present are products of the same cloistered set ups? Whose ideal of the community of scholars – however typically honored in the breach – is barely one step removed, at least in the West, from the medieval monastery? And would that society structure this system so as to ensure that so many of these coddled youth would be those whose talent or birth or some combination of these and other advantages tended to push them into lives of outsized power and influence?
Following on: Could such a cloistered situation reasonably be expected to engender anything deserving the term “personal growth,” or reinforce any desirable form of maturation? Isn’t it far likelier that it’s fostered the kind of entitled sensibilities that never fail to harm any human community, and in fact the kind of narcissism and extended adolescence that seems so widespread among my own Baby Boomers – the first generation during which a system once reserved for the upper classes was extended to the broad middle – and succeeding cohorts?
Of course no society in its right mind would knowingly engage in practices so described, or expect anything but counterproductive, and even perverse, results. Just as obvious, this portrait of campus life is too broadbrush and shouldn’t tar the reputations of all those students who work their way diligently through four-year colleges needing to balance the requirements of classroom and jobs, of generations before them faced with the same challenges and strapped with the often inevitable debts, and of students who have donated big chunks of time and continue to volunteer for all manner of worthy community service projects.
Yet can anyone seriously deny that a nation-wide gap dividing town and gown is exactly what’s been created and cultivated in higher education for decades now? Or that its excessive width – indeed the imperative of rethinking the very goal of immersing near-adults in an environment defining itself, however undeservedly, as higher brow than its surroundings – is becoming ever clearer from the abundant evidence that many of even the less completely pampered undergrads leave academe lacking everything from critical thinking skills to the ability to function in the workplace without time-consuming supervision? (See, e.g., here.)
I am far from knowing what model should or will replace it, though I sense that the very breadth of higher education’s failure is a glaring sign that more than one alternative is in the offing. I’d also be surprised if lots of time and trial and error weren’t needed to devise them, and if some version of the current four-year community of scholars model didn’t survive as the best match for some students – as it is now.
But for most – and even for many of the most academically inclined – higher education seems certain ultimately to much more closely integrate the classroom world and the broader world that graduates will enter. And I’m equally certain that, once this transition is well underway, most will look back and wonder why anyone thought they should have been kept so far apart to begin with.