Universities have gotten out of hand. I suppose it was inevitable. You can’t view something as a necessity for (at least) 18-22-year-olds, say their parents are obligated to pay for it or they’ll have insane student debt, then allow the culture of that institution to be popularly viewed as a great way to meet people you can drink with before you finish and go get a job. The university has become, in large part, a degree factory. This is a problem because it’s destroyed the idea of a liberal education, but we’re going to focus on one particular and vaguely alarming trend in university students.
We, as a whole, have become weak, unassertive pansies. That’s harsh language. I’m only partly kidding. We can’t stand alternative viewpoints; an alternative viewpoint is probably coming from either a bigot, a ‘libtard’, a ‘crazy conservative’, or some other slur that lets them get away with not actually processing information contrary to their view. Many formerly great colleges have become a strange form of groupthink, where you’re supposed to be able to branch out and become who you are but also everyone else is doing it this way, because this way is accepting. Read that sentence aloud. Read it again. See the problem?
There are three main causes of this groupthink. I won’t go into all of the historical detail. That would be fun, but then the post would become too long and unwieldy. We’ll simply focus on what I’ll call immediate causes: the things that create modern collegiate groupthinkers Now, not the causes that made these causes exist. Cultural revolution is a subject for another time. Without further ado:
Everyone who’s been through college has had (I hope) at least one good professor whose classes they enjoyed mostly because that professor was teaching it. They might be engaging, a good listener, funny, or some combination of these. They made a class that could possibly otherwise be dull or worse into something that was not only enjoyable but capable of further study in the future. The sad fact is that these professors are memorable because they are rare. Especially – but certainly not exclusively – in the hard sciences there is a trend toward lectures as the only form of teaching. This, combined with no-tolerance policies on various mild infractions (accidental citation errors, for example) create a learning environment where students find themselves drone-like. A research paper is good simply if it accurately regurgitates the information others have provided. This one isn’t hard to understand. If it isn’t taught well, it won’t be learned well. Other than the subjects which practically apply to a student’s life, very few of the lessons learned in college will stick with them for a long time.
There is a time for lectures and research papers, but there is also a time for discussion, asking questions, and well thought-through analysis. Treating us like we’re capable of the complex thought necessary to get to where we need to be scholastically makes us rise to that challenge.
Ouch. What could you have possibly done wrong that would lead to your kid leaving home and going crazy? As it turns out, a lot; but this isn’t solely a parenting essay, so I’ll cut this section a little short by focusing on what creates a genuine scholar, not regurgitator, of a child who has the potential to go either way. This stuff doesn’t work for every kid and I’m not an expert, but I’m going to discuss the environments that produce that kind of student from a decent (that is, not exemplary but not particularly rebellious either) base personality and skillset.
There are two central traps that parents fall into. The first is to be solely authoritarian. You aren’t a friend, you’re their parent, and that doesn’t change. You are their authority, a benevolent dictatorship, from the day they’re born to the day they finally leave. I’m not just talking about helicopter moms here, either; most authoritarian parents are distant as well as being hyper-controlling. The problem here is that said parent is not approachable. It’s as if you’re a literal wall that occasionally gives orders. When they’re young there is an element of this that is necessary, but a gradual release as they prove themselves capable of some autonomy – easy when they’re in programs like ROTC, Boy Scouts, or others, but harder if not – is greatly beneficial. They learn to trust you. You aren’t just a friend yet, but as they get older, they will start to view you with respect as a person and not merely as an authority.
The flipside of this, and a sin just as egregious, is the parent who just wants to be a friend. They want their kid to have what their kid wants as long as it’s possible. They do not punish, and when they do it’s in an odd, strangely begrudging manner. I’ll talk to you directly if that’s you: you’re probably doing your kid a disservice. An exemplary kid will grow up fast, learn who they are, and cry on your shoulder. He’ll come to you for advice when something goes wrong or he messes up. This is not about that kid. This is about the average kid. Average is messing up and covering it up; it’s making you fix what’s gone wrong without thanks; it’s not knowing who you are, being scared of the future, and not knowing what to do 90% of the time. A highschooler needs a parent, not a pal. You are not their actual peer yet. Keep rules and relax them as they prove themselves, not add them when something bad happens. Oh, and they aren’t much more likely to come to you for advice if you act like you’re their age, either. There is a place for being your child’s friend and it is after they have been given the chance to prove themselves, not when they’re six.
What do college students do? Hopefully, they learn intensively. They study the works of great authors, artists, and scientists. They become who they are. So why do college students in movies get drunk all the time, get high, act like nutcases, and probably get pregnant and die. Mean Girls references aside, there are three things that seem expected of college students nowadays: they will party, get intoxicated, and have all of the sex.
This is a chicken and egg problem. Did the media start portraying college students like that and create the stereotype or did the stereotype create the media’s view? There can be no doubt that college students frequently do the things that the media portrays. But when a stereotype goes from a simple base of reality to an expectation it becomes self-fulfilling. I am not arguing the media is solely responsible for the lack of genuine scholarship among students. I am arguing that it perpetuates that lack by asserting other things are more important.
Take an example. What are college undergrads known for, besides the above, now? Majoring in practically useless fields, being nonsensical activists, and complaining about student loans. This is generally true. There are a lot more people in gender studies than are going to be able to get jobs in that field. Activism for farcical strawmen runs rampant. Why else would Texas students wave, yes, dildos on campus to protest the presence of guns? Why would they protest the fact that some halls are named after dead people? Why would they make up paranoia-induced terms like microaggressions?
Because culture attacks the stereotype of college students in such a way that the people who identify themselves with certain groups feel attacked. When people feel attacked they tend to strike back – that’s a universal fact. Such protests, though often faintly and sometimes blatantly ridiculous, represent a problem with the culture around us.
That problem is that colleges become an echo chamber quickly. It began with the good ideal of multiculturalism being twisted into cultural correctness; it has gotten here and this is not the end. The echo chamber of collegiate culture will continue rewarding the same lackadaisical, soft nihilism it has gained until something else fills in. We should fill it.
How does one solve these problems? I don’t know how to fix them at a grand level. I can tell you right now that more and more legislation will have a negligible effect. It is a culture problem and a people problem. We each have the potential for self-government. If we each try to create a personal environment – by governing ourselves first, then extending that to, say, our children or students – that rewards critical thought and an acceptance that others’ opinions are both valid and worthy of criticism. We need to understand that genuine respect of a person means being willing to look at what they say critically. It’s a slow process, but if we all do it, it just might work.