Crisp: Complaints against higher education are often overstated

The fall semester where I teach college 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 magazine 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 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.

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 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, date rape, cushy dorms, an average postgraduation debt of $30,000. And an obsession with football.

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 As legislators and taxpayers have withdrawn support from higher education over the last several decades, their message, implicit and sometimes explicit, is to “Act more like businesses.”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?

Further, many of the complaints against higher ed have no relevance for a significant portion of American colleges and their students. The students that I teach aren’t the 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 with a focused, practical purpose in mind.

I wouldn’t call them typical college students, but their numbers aren’t insignificant. They’re part of the 45 percent of 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 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 and students who are just trying to get the job done.

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