We’ve been going through graduation season, that time of year when students at colleges and universities are finally saying goodbye to all of that — the crushing tuition costs, too many courses of ever less value, curbs on publicly expressed views and professors whose political diversity is next to nil.
That’s a small part of the story. The other half, or at least part of the other half, is what the students face when they are on their own, such as a student-loan debt burden that could keep shoving them to their knees for years to come.
Yes, there is still plenty of excellence in our institutions of higher education, and not all of them are equally amiss. The issue is that major players have been engaged in a dangerous game with scary consequences, not the least of these being politicians whose supposedly beneficent student-loan program meant that universities could charge just about any tuition they chose and still get endless knocks on the door.
Guess what? The consequence was inflation as some other major players — administrators who saw their numbers and salaries go way the heck up — did all they could to attract ever more students, even to the point of lowering academic standards to get them on board. It was a goal that also appealed to many politicians who argued it would bring us ever closer to equality.
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The truth is that many of these students were being cheated. Their talents and passions lay elsewhere, and the right skills could have gotten them pay comparable to that of college graduates. It has taken many of these less-qualified students far longer to get their degrees than the four years that used to be usual, and many have flunked out, even as they still owe money on their loans. The move to reduce standards also led to less challenging coursework, according to some. And that brings us to other major players: faculty members.
They are often exceptionally bright people, if too often people also caught up in ideologically unbending, sometimes extreme points of view that usually veer to the left politically, but also range from postmodernist relativism to its near opposite: the absolutist belief that science is the only possible way of knowing anything.
Because of the scientism, we have the bad joke of professors robbing literature of its majesty through hard-science analyses of a ludicrously inappropriate caliber. Because of the political views of professors and administrators, we have identity-based courses that can get more attention than important core curricula. One example of what is not being sufficiently taught comes from a study showing how seniors at top schools are abysmally ignorant of American history.
Other major players are the students themselves, who, it is widely reported, contribute to the atmosphere with their own relativism that no doubt is one explanation of the so-called hookup culture. Most schools sit more or less on the sidelines, although then in some cases expelling young men accused of rape with few of the ordinary rights of self-defense. Universities are not big on the right of free speech either. Did you hear about the student who had to stop passing out copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day because he had not signed up earlier to do it at the one spot where that would be allowed?
Students themselves can actually play similar free speech games with professors on some campuses. If the professor is going to bring up some subject or perhaps read some literary passage that might leave a student emotionally upset, he or she is supposed to give a so-called “trigger warning.” If that’s not done and some incalculably disturbed soul reports the offense, the prof could be in trouble.
Put all these forces together, and you have something crucial and once hugely admirable dissolving into something pathetic unless varied remedies — more emphasis on community colleges and cheap online courses, for instance — pay off.
Maybe they will.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.
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