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