Viewpoint

Complaints against higher ed often unjust

Students unloaded their belongings last weekend as they returned to UNC Charlotte. Critics say institutions of higher learning need reform.
Students unloaded their belongings last weekend as they returned to UNC Charlotte. Critics say institutions of higher learning need reform. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

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.

“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.

No wonder some Americans shift 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 As legislators and taxpayers have systematically withdrawn support from higher education over the last several decades, their message is to “Act more like businesses.”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 simply have no relevance for a significant portion of American colleges and their students. The students that I will be meeting 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. 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.

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 teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at jcrisp@delmar.edu.

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