Lowdown on Higher Education

Lowdown on Higher Education

By Patrick F. Cannon

The New York Times, our newspaper of record, that great “grey lady” of journalism, occasionally runs focus groups. People of diverse sexes, ages, ethnicities and political persuasions are gathered together over coffee, tea, flavored water, sweet rolls, bagels and rice cakes to discuss subjects of contemporary interest. Politics? Sex? Dogs vs. cats? Trump? No Trump? Almost anything could be grist for the mill.

            Last week, a group of 12 college undergraduates were assembled to talk about their expectations and experiences. As you might expect, there were an equal number of men and women; a no doubt scientifically-chosen selection of races; a mixture of family income levels; and even political party affiliation (two actually identified as Republican!). Although college names were  not disclosed, it was clear that both public and private institutions were represented.

            As you might have expected, student loans weighed heavily on some (a few hadn’t needed them), and they were predictably pleased about the recent forgiveness of some debt. White guilt plagued some – they seemed to think their family’s prosperity permitted test tutoring that minority student students hadn’t been able to afford. One black girl was sure her classmates looked down on her because they assumed her race had factored in her admission.

            It was also clear that most of them saw college only as a means to an end; that end being their future careers. One young man complained that he had somehow been forced to take an art history course, when it had nothing to do with his career choice; and besides, he had zero interest in the arts. Others made similar complaints. Those career choices, by the way, included medicine, speech pathology, psychology  and the law.

            I was interested in discovering whether they experienced restraints on freedom of expression. A few said their professors actually encouraged free discussion of relevant issues; while others, confirming what one has heard reported, claimed they felt constrained in voicing their opinions. Two even said they felt their professors were given to expressing their personal left-wing political views even in courses where they had no possible relevance. In this case, it would have been helpful to know the name of the colleges.

            But the most interesting single thing to me was that only one of the students – just one of 12 – actually seemed excited to be there. He said that he was learning something new and exciting almost every day! Imagine spending four years with that attitude, instead of being impatient to get the whole thing over with.

            While it may be too late to reverse the tide, I think the aim of an undergraduate degree should be a liberal education instead of vocational training.        At a minimum, every college graduate should have full knowledge of United States history, both the good and bad, but untainted by political ideology. There has been a tendency in recent years to emphasize the darker aspects of our history, ignoring a trajectory that has given us more personal freedom and less abject poverty than ever before. And demagogues have always been able to impose their own version of history on those who have none of their own.

            In general, we need to return to the concept that the first two years of college are meant to ground the student in the history and culture (literature, art, music) of the United States and the wider world. I was asked 60 or more years ago to also choose basic courses in the sciences or math. I chose biology and chemistry and it did me no harm! But I was also inspired to become an English major (a dwindling choice these days) and further my studies in the arts. Although I didn’t publish my first book on architecture until I was retired, it was a course in Chicago architecture as an undergraduate at Northwestern that eventually led to the six I’ve done (so far!).

            A seventeen- or eighteen-year-old should be given at least two years to explore the possibilities for future studies and a career. Like that lonely young man, they just might be anxious to get out of bed every morning and get to class. That enthusiasm might lead to eminence in the law or medicine, or a Nobel Prize in literature. At the very least, they might learn that the world wasn’t created on the day they were born.

Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon    

7 thoughts on “Lowdown on Higher Education

  1. So true!! How many of us with degrees had careers in the area in which we majored? I didn’t, and I’m sure I’m in the majority. I remember loving how the world opened up to me as I took a wide variety of classes in my first two years. Students with tunnel vision are cutting themselves short. The most important things they need to learn are a) how to learn, and b) how to think critically. I hope they do!

    Now I eagerly await your thoughts on the recent story about the NYU students who had their professor fired because his organic chemistry class was “too hard.” Whiners!! Yes, it’s hard – I took it and it was difficult. But life is hard too! As the article said, I would NOT want any of those students to be my doctor!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I just read yesterday about the NYU teacher. I guess if you pay what NYU charges, they’re not permitted to fail you. I never failed a course, but came close a couple of times. I never thought my grades were anyone’s fault but my own.

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      1. It’s truly a sad state of affairs when higher education becomes a matter of buying a diploma rather than earning it! I once got a D and therefore had to repeat that course to get the credit, but knew it was entirely my own fault. Too many people these days believe that nothing is ever their fault.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. College fifty, ahem, years ago was a completely different thing.

    I remember heavy course loads in a wide range of required subjects, an equally heavy reading lists (in multiple languages!) and rigorous grade standards. One freshman literature survey course required five “term papers” alone.

    What I remember most, however, was an insistence on open debate of all subjects — political, social, religious, racial, whatever. In a few cases, we were made to argue opposing positions of a dispute. Such discussions were often carried on after class.

    Today there are only a few colleges that haven’t succumbed to the woke culture. It’s no easy task finding courses that don’t present their subject matter in terms of gender, race, equity, social justice and climate change. At the local institute of higher learning here in Mayberry, job applicants are required to submit with their credentials “a diversity statement that demonstrates your commitment and ability to engage with issues of diversity and inclusion.” And they don’t mean diversity of ideas or politics.

    So it’s no surprise that students just want to get through this whole business, receive their degree and get on with more important work. Another interesting trend: Fewer men are enrolling in college, especially in liberal arts programs. Certainly expense is a factor. Who wants to go deeply in debt for a credential that earns you a job at Starbucks? But I think educational content and atmosphere also play major parts. Where’s the benefit of spending four years afraid of offending someone’s delicate sensibilities and getting punished for it?

    Of course, you don’t need to spend six figures in college for that. You can do it for free. The Biden administration is trying to get media companies to censor anyone expressing ideas contrary to the climate change orthodoxy. And, all of you semi-fascists out there, that is only the tip of the melting iceberg!

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    1. I once took a course in the 19th Century British novel. We were assigned 10. All were predictably weighty. The professor advised that he would choose only 8 for the test, and invited us to see if we could predict which eight!

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      1. If you only read eight, odds are at least getting an 80/100 on the test. And of course better with Cliff Notes!

        With declining enrollments, liberal arts departments are trying to make courses relevant and exciting! (whereas once they just read the authors) by emphasizing a theme. Hence, there was a popular Russian 19th century lit course dubbed “Nuts and Sluts.” Here’s a description of an American 19th century lit survey course, which could have been titled “Anywhere but Here,” offered at the local U:

        “This class will survey writing in the nineteenth century in the U.S. by exploring the many “worlds elsewhere” fabricated, fantasized, and inhabited by writers both within the state, and those excluded from it. Polar expeditions, spirit communications, images of life on the moon, utopias and dystopias in both the future and the past, prophetic visions, narratives of liberation and escape, abolition and emancipation, technological fantasies involving photography, telegraphy, and phonography—these are a few of the expressions of “worlds elsewhere” we’ll look at.”

        Nothing like a little escape through literature. Others, however, like this 18th century English course, sound like pure propagandist drudgery:

        “This course considers how Enlightenment models of property and personhood shaped and reshaped the conditions of worldbuilding over the course of the long eighteenth century—a period known for the emergence of human rights discourses, on the one hand, and racialized regimes of violence, on the other. ”

        After that long century of enlightened misery, students may need to sign up for “How to Write a Compelling Suicide Note.”

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