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Complaints against higher ed are often overstated

At about the time you’re reading this column, I may be holding the first or second class meeting for the courses that I teach at my college. The fall semester is just beginning, providing an occasion to reflect for a moment on higher education in America.

Others are doing the same. This month “The Atlantic” published two articles about higher education. It doesn’t look very good in either.

In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that in their efforts to cater to students American colleges and universities are playing a role opposite from their traditional one: instead of confronting students with unfamiliar _ and even uncomfortable – ideas, institutions of higher education are shielding them from anything that might offend.

In the same issue Caitlin Flanagan suggests that the desire to protect their students from offense has caused colleges and universities to lose their sense of humor. Comedians love to play the college circuit, but some, such as Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, have given up on colleges because of their unwillingness to tolerate anything that might be edgy or offensive – no matter how funny.

“Harper’s Magazine” takes a shot at higher ed this month, as well, with “The Neoliberal Arts: How College Sold its Soul to the Market,” by William Deresiewicz. He argues that colleges and universities, rather than serving as sources of “real education,” are thoroughly compromised by the market and now exist only to teach students to make a living, not how to live.

These complaints against higher ed are well-founded. In fact, one could add others: a culture of drinking, racist fraternity parties, grade inflation, a watered-down, whimsical curriculum, harassment, date rape, cushy dorms, extravagant student amenities and an average post-graduation debt of $30,000.

And we haven’t even mentioned higher education’s obsession with football, a necessity for institutions that seek prominence and alumni loyalty but a sport that exploits its players and leaves many of them damaged for life.

No wonder some Americans shift quickly into full-rant when the subject of higher ed comes up, and certainly higher education deserves some of this criticism. But a lot of it is overstated or unjustified.

All educational institutions struggle with the tension between their obligation to confront society’s values and the forces that push them to conform with and reflect those values. As legislators and taxpayers have systematically withdrawn support from higher education over the last several decades, their message, implicit and sometimes explicit, is to “Act more like businesses.”

So why is anyone surprised when they do, even if that means catering to “customers” in terms of accommodations, curricula and entertainment and charging according to what the market will bear?

Furthermore, many of the complaints against higher ed enumerated earlier simply have no relevance for a significant portion of American colleges and their students. The students that I will be meeting for the first time this week aren’t the privileged, entitled, hyper-sensitive freshmen imagined by critics of higher ed. For the most part, they’re older — the average age is 27 — and they’ve come to school, or come back to school, with a focused, practical purpose in mind.

They won’t be spending weekends binge-drinking at fraternity parties or assaulting their dates after football games. They’re more likely to be working a second job or taking care of their kids.

I wouldn’t call them typical college students, but their numbers aren’t insignificant. They’re part of the 45 percent of American undergraduates who attend the nation’s 1,700 community colleges, and they amount to roughly 9 million students.

Of course, community colleges have their own problems, but the fact that a significant segment of higher education isn’t implicated in many of the most prominent complaints against it ought to suggest some doubts about the extent to which higher education at large is guilty of the most extravagant charges against it.

Just as with the NFL, the misdeeds of the superstars in higher education may unfairly indict many colleges, professors and students who are just trying to get the job done.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.



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