A Conversation Overheard

“Hey, Fred! You coming to the party Thursday night? It’s going to be seriously fine!!”

“Nah. I’ve got a Mid-term coming on Friday and a paper due at the end of next week. I’ve got to hit the books.”

“Dude, you gotta be shittin’ me! It’s Thursday, man! It’s party night. Tell your Prof your Grandma died and get her to let you take a make-up. Then, after we’ve sobered up we can catch the game on Saturday!”

“Yeah. Great. But even if that worked, I’ve still got that paper for Professor Erickson.”

“What’s the topic?”

“It’s for history and it’s on Reconstruction after the Civil War.”

“Well, what you do is Google the topic and there are hundreds of essays online on that topic. Cut and paste a few of them and stick in some misspelled words. She’ll never know the difference. C’mon, man. LET’S PARTY!! This party is going to be fantastic! Jack has a couple of kegs and some of the girls from Tri-Delt will be there!”

“I really can’t, much as I’d like to. I really don’t think my Prof will let me take a make-up.”

“Who is your Prof again”?

“Professor Erickson.” She’s supposed to be tough.”

“Bull! I checked her out on “ratemyprofessor.com” last semester to see whether or not I wanted to take her class and she’s a pussycat. She will let you take the test any time you want!”

“If that’s so, why didn’t you take her class this semester?”

“Because there were two other profs who are supposed to be even easier. This stuff is gravy. You can cruise the internet and you won’t have to sweat out your four years. I got an A+ from Professor Stewart in Sociology and I never even opened a book.”

“An A+?? There’s no such grade! You gotta be kidding me!”

“I know! Just like I said: this stuff is easy! Now work on your sob story and plan to be there tomorrow night! We’re going to have a blast!”

 

Needless to say, I made this up. And for all my shortcomings as a fiction-writer, this is no fiction. It’s common at so many of our colleges that are taking huge amounts of money from parents and students to defraud our young, telling them they are getting an education while all the time they are simply running in place.

Let’s hope our hero doesn’t go to the party. But here’s betting he does.

 

 

 

 

Bright College Days

It’s time to debunk another cultural myth, folks! In the 50s and 60s college was sold to young people as a way to increase their income during their lifetime. That doesn’t seem to work any longer, so the marketing tune has changed though the object is the same: sell the product to disinterested young people who don’t quite know what to do with their lives. The latest marketing ploy is to get these people into college by promising them the four years will be “the best years of your life!” If it’s true, it is very sad. But this, in fact, is the approach Claire used on the sit-com “Modern Family” last season to persuade her spaced-out daughter Haley to apply to college, referring to the parties and sporting events. It seems to be the best she or anyone else can come up with, though Claire says it with conviction. Again, how sad.

The “best” years of a person’s life should not be identified with four or five years of mindless partying, though if one watches the TV on Saturday morning and sees the young people flocked around the cameras on “College Game Day” on ESPN, and reads about the amount of alcohol consumed on college campuses these days, the myth seems to be true —  if we insist on identifying “best” with pure, mindless pleasure.

The problem is, of course, the colleges have to find a message that will resonate with high school students who are by-and-large miseducated, spoiled and self-indulgent, and who are unable to relate to the kinds of things that will in fact make them better and more successful human beings. So the marketers have latched on to the “best years of your life” mantra, and it seems to be working, at least for those kids whose parents can afford it. In fact, it works so well that a great many students actually resent it when their professors try to get them to do the work necessary to complete their courses and move on to the next level. Even in my teaching days, students talked about little else than the party(s) coming up on Thursday night (!) or over the weekend. Except for the honors students, I don’t think I ever heard the students generally talking about the subject matter they were learning about in their classes. The classwork almost seemed to be an intrusion into what they regarded as the real reason they were in college. But, of course, that was what they were told.

It is doubtful any more that young people would be willing to take on the huge loans and the hard work of preparing for challenging courses for four years unless they were convinced it was going to be fun. It should be fun, of course, but it should also be much more. It does the young a disservice to lower the appeal to their level and not make them stretch and grow — like selling them toothpaste. One would like to think that they would respond to the challenge provided by the promise of intellectual and emotional growth. But not in this world; not as we know it. So the myths will persist and the colleges will not only promise them fun but do their level best to turn the colleges themselves into country clubs. They might change slightly, but they will lead the young into a new world that isn’t really all that different from the one they know, and one that doesn’t threaten them with challenges they are unprepared for because an indulgent society keeps telling them they are brighter and better than, in fact, they are.

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that so many of America’s colleges that promise their students a “liberal education,” even the most “prestigious” of those colleges, have lost their way and have forgotten their fundamental purpose, which is to free young minds. As a recent book published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni points out, of the twenty-five most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the United States — as identified by that oracle of  Truth, U.S. News and World Reports — twenty are “falling short” of their express purpose. They all have a weak general education program (which is where the liberal arts are housed these days, if they can be found anywhere), at a time when students come out of high school with little or no real preparation for college work. They need those core courses now more than ever before. Of the seven core subjects that the ACTA has identified as central to any meaningful education “twenty [ of the prestigious] schools required three or fewer. . . five required none at all.” The irony is that the colleges make the assumption that the students no longer need these basic subjects at a time when the students’ needs couldn’t be any greater. The truth of the matter is, as noted above, the colleges seek to attract and retain students and tough subjects only get in the way.

At the same time the presidents of these small colleges, some with enrolments as low as 2000, are making close to half a million dollars in annual salaries, with houses and cars thrown in for good measure. And they have gathered around themselves a coterie of highly priced, like-minded administrators and “support personnel” whose goal is to make sure the institution operates in the black, no matter what the cost to the students in dollars and real achievement. As a result, tuition rates are out of control and in order to keep students in school the quality of what they are paying for is on the decline.

The good news is that the A.C.T.A. is slowly but surely putting pressure on the colleges and universities around the country to get their act in gear by going public with the embarrassing data their research continues to turn up. They understand fully the difference between what the students want and what they need, and they also realize that only by bringing the cost of tuition down (by, among other things, lowering the high salaries of overpaid administrators) can the colleges hope to make education more affordable for more students, thereby taking some of the pressure off the faculties to further dumb down the curriculum in order to attract and retain students. These are good things, to be sure, and it does offer a glimmer of hope. In the meantime, parents of college-bound students would be well advised to check the A.C.T.A. website to see whether the college their children might be considering is worth the thousands of dollars it is sure to cost.

The Best Years

It’s time to debunk another cultural myth, folks! In the 50s and 60s college was sold to young people as a way to increase their income during their lifetime. That doesn’t seem to work any longer, so the tune has changed though the object is the same: sell the product to disinterested young people who don’t quite know what to do with their lives. The latest marketing ploy is to get these people into college by promising them the four years will be “the best years of your life!” If it’s true, it is very sad. But this, in fact, is the approach Claire uses on the sit-com “Modern Family” to persuade her spaced-out daughter Haley to apply to college, referring to the parties and sporting events. It seems to be the best she or anyone else can come up with, though Claire says it with conviction. Again, how sad.

The “best” years of a person’s life should not be identified with four or five years of almost continuous partying, though if one watches the TV on Saturday morning and sees the young people flocked around the cameras on “College Game Day” on ESPN, and reads about the amount of alcohol consumed on college campuses these days, the myth seems to be true —  if we insist on identifying “best” with pure, unadulterated pleasure.

The problem is, of course, the colleges have to find a message that will resonate with high school students who are spoiled and self-indulgent, and who are unable to relate to the kinds of things that will in fact make them better human beings. So the marketers have latched on to the “best years of your life” mantra, and it seems to be working. In fact, it works so well that a great many students actually resent it when their professors try to get them to do the work necessary to complete their courses and move on to the next level. Even in my day, students talked about little else than the party(s) coming up on Thursday night (!) or over the weekend. I don’t think I ever heard them talking about the subject matter they were learning about in their classes. The classwork almost seemed to be an intrusion into what they regarded as the real reason they were in college. But, of course, that was what they were told.

It is doubtful that young people would be willing to take on the huge loans and the hard work of preparing for challenging courses for four years unless they were convinced it was going to be fun. It should be fun, but it should also be much more. It does the young a disservice to lower the appeal to their level and not make them stretch and grow. One would like to think that they would respond to the challenge provided by the promise of intellectual and emotional growth. But not in this world; not as we know it. So the myths will persist. They might change slightly, but they will be created in order to lead the young into a new world that isn’t really all that different from the one they know, and one that doesn’t threaten them with challenges they are unprepared for because an indulgent society keeps telling them they are brighter and better than, in fact, they are.

In addition to being a place to make new friends and have fun, the young need college to be what it is supposed to be. But it won’t happen as long as the myths prevail and the colleges keep lowering their expectations, giving the young what they have come to expect from a culture that is focused on “wants” rather than “needs.”