Tastes great, less filling Higher Education


Few parents realize what they are doing to their children by sending them to some of our most prestigious institutions of higher education. All too many of our colleges and universities charge too much and teach too little to too many students. In this unfriendly, permissive, anti-intellectual environment, students take too few courses, drink too much, party too much and learn too little from faculties concerned more with political correctness than truth.

One might hope that our colleges would provide cutting-edge solutions -- or at least some solutions -- to our nation's many social, economic, political and environmental problems. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Today's college students are into consumerism, hedonism, anti-intellectualism and unabashed individualism, which give rise to alcohol abuse, indolence and excessive careerism.

If one listens to college students talk in the dining hall, the library or the student union, the expression heard most often from them on many campuses is, "I can't believe how drunk I was last night."

College students spend more than $5.5 billion annually on alcoholic beverages and consume more than 4 billion cans of beer -- the equivalent of 34 gallons of beer per student. Ninety-five percent of the violent crime committed on campus is alcohol related, including 90 percent of the college rapes.

We don't claim that college drinking is worse today than in the past, although there is evidence suggesting that a major new factor in student drunkenness is the growing percentage of women who binge-drink. Perhaps the main difference today is that the behavioral consequences of alcohol abuse are no longer considered socially unacceptable.

Nothing better characterizes the self-image of college students than one of their favorite self-designations -- "We work hard, we play hard." But how is it possible to work hard and maintain the kind of lifestyle which pervades college campuses today?

How often do students think hard in an environment in which they receive higher grades for doing less work in fewer courses ** than was the case a few years ago? With no Saturday classes, few early morning classes and the widespread use of work-saving personal computers, students have far more free time on their hands than they can effectively use.

Students at Duke's School of Business were asked to write a personal strategic plan for the 10-year period after graduation. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" With few exceptions, they wanted three things -- money, power and things (very big things, including automobiles, yachts and even airplanes).

Primarily concerned with their careers and the growth of their financial portfolios, their personal plans contained little room for family, intellectual development, spiritual growth or social responsibility.

Their mandate to the faculty was, "Teach me how to be a money-making machine. Give me only the facts, tools and techniques required to ensure my instantaneous financial success." All else was irrelevant.

Most colleges -- in response to market pressures -- are so preoccupied with careerism that they do little to facilitate students' search for meaning. The absence of meaning leads to drunken fraternity house bashes, date rape, vandalism and acts of violence.

Students have no incentive to delay gratification because they place so little faith in a future that has no meaning for them. Instead, they pursue the elusive dream that it is possible "to have it all and to have it now" -- a dream that turns out to be a lie, a materialistic cover for lack of meaning.

While subscribing to an ideology that raises individualism to almost godlike status, more college students behave as world-class conformists. Some have tried -- often in vain -- to find meaning through the approval of parents, personal computers, excessive television viewing, rock music, spectator sports, physical fitness and sexual promiscuity.

Ironically, lacking any sense of direction, any inner conviction about what their lives ought to mean, they become the compliant victims of external pressures imposed by their parents, their passions and Corporate America.

Paraphrasing The Economist: To undergraduates, universities are landlords; to scholars they are multidisciplinary think tanks; to entrepreneurs they are applied research parks; to economic development officials they are economic growth centers; and to gung-ho alumni they are sponsors of professional football teams disguised as college teams.

Is it any wonder that the cost of higher education is out of control and the mission of most universities appears to be garbled and inconsistent? American universities have tried unsuccessfully to be all things to all people. In so doing, they find themselves in too many unrelated disconnected businesses. They have become academic behemoths.

During higher education's "roaring Eighties," universities said no almost no one. By the 1990s, they had become virtually unmanageable. This is a far cry from the 1950s and 1960s, when universities were viewed by American conservatives as engines of economic growth, by liberals as agents of social change, and by taxpayers as avenues of upward mobility.

A generation of students has come to college quite fragile, insecure about purpose and fearful of a lack of identity. They have little confidence in their economic future. Entering students have experienced few lifetime connections with adults. They have come from a "culture of neglect."

We have created a culture characterized by dysfunctional families, mass schooling that demands only minimal effort, and media idols subliminally teaching disrespect for authority and wisdom.

The generation entering college today has been abandoned by parents, faculty and administration. These students have been left in a vacuum on college campuses where there is no sense of community, and they are expected to emerge as mature, responsible adults.

What is called for is a complete restructuring of universities including the way they are organized, the way undergraduates are taught and in the substance of the curriculum.

The ultimate aim of restructuring is to improve the quality of undergraduate education, increase its value and reduce its costs to create a community of scholars and teachers who will enhance students' critical thinking skills and their search for meaning.

While we know that smallness alone is no guarantee of a school's educational effectiveness, we do believe that a large size is mostly a negative factor in achieving the goals of higher education. Universities are not immune to the law of decreasing returns with regard to increased size.

We estimate the optimum-sized undergraduate learning environment to be an academic community consisting of no more than 2,000 students subdivided into English-style residential colleges of around 300 students each, such as those found at Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

Large state universities, with their dehumanizing high-rise dormitories, legions of graduate teaching assistants and tens of thousands of undergraduates, are antithetical to the pursuit of knowledge, meaning and community.

We propose downsizing universities to a more reasonable scale and eventually decoupling undergraduate education from the largest of them. Over the next decade, the aim of large universities should be either completely to spin off their undergraduate programs or to significantly decentralize them in a manner consistent with the residential college mode.

Too many of our universities resemble General Motors of the 1950s. While American business has radically transformed the corporation of the 1950s, American higher education is still saddled with huge institutional relics that produce assembly-line graduates.

In 1994, tiny Bennington College in Vermont, known for is nontraditional approach to education and its high tuition, sent shock waves through the American higher education establishment when it announced its plans to implement one of the most radical college restructuring schemes ever conceived.

The reconfiguration called for faculty and staff reductions, the abolition of tenure, the elimination of traditional academic departments, a 10 percent cut in tuition and fees, the adoption of an alternative contractual system for faculty, and the establishment of a revolving venture-capital fund to support innovative new faculty ideas.

All of this was in response to declining enrollments, a $1 million deficit, serious erosion of academic standards, poor faculty morale and organizational chaos. Bennington was not only out of control; it was in a death spiral.

But to its credit, Bennington was small enough and flexible enough to reinvent itself. Most large colleges and universities are not! Unlike many college boards, Bennington's was not only paying attention to what was going on, but it was prepared to take risks to save a great college.

After decades of distancing themselves from their students, abandoning them to their own devices, we are hopeful that American colleges and universities can recover a sense of themselves as intellectual and moral communities dedicated to the mutual pursuit of knowledge and character. Our students deserve nothing less.

Thomas H. Naylor is professor emeritus of economics and William H. Willimon is dean of the Chapel at Duke University. They are co-authors of "The Abandoned Generation: Rethinking Higher Education."

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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