Forget college

Once in a while, I like to read Bob Herbert because he gets things wrong. But seeing how he gets things wrong helps me to see things more clearly. (One should always give credit where credit is due.)

On March 4, he got higher education wrong. Herbert observes that students are not studying, they are partying all weekend, and, because of lax standards, they are still performing “well.” Halfway through “College the Easy Way,” he laments,

What many of those [partying, academically indifferent] students are not walking away with is something that has long been recognized as invaluable — higher order thinking and reasoning skills. They can get their degrees without putting in more of an effort because in far too many instances the colleges and universities are not demanding more of them.

By now, the antinomy between bootstrapping and structural reform is beyond stale. Herbert takes a bootstrapping conservative line in spite of his otherwise soft liberal commitments. “Work harder, sons. Don’t take college for granted. Put your shoulder into it so that you’ll have the higher-order skills you need in order to compete in this brave new rough-and-tumble economy.” Bootstrap, man, bootstrap.

To the bootstrappers, softy lefties reply that the root cause is structural and institutional. Are students aloof and indifferent? Maybe we educators (or, rather, Wii educators) need to do a better job of reaching young persons. They are Web 2.0-ers, and we must acknowledge this. So: More technology in the classroom! More innovative pedagogy! More diversity! More workshops with bells and whistles and kazoos! Huzah, hurray!

My modest suggestion is that the problem may lie elsewhere. To be sure, we are facing a crisis of legitimacy in higher education, and disaffection, i.e., taking things for granted, is but a sign of or name for the magnitude of the problem. I would wager that the logical entailment of the cafeteria model (each student choosing what she most desires) is alienation and fragmentation. If I can choose anything but I have not learned the subtle art of discrimination, then I might as well choose nothing. And as the number of choices multiplies (see the work of psychologist Barry Schwarz), the choiceworthy nature of the items on display recedes into the background.

Without some broader mission, the university becomes a delivery service. Without some broader ethical vision, the citizen-student becomes a consumer. Without some kind of synthesis, the individual can’t identify with the institution. Thus alienation and careerism. Ah, here we are.

Bootstrap, bootstrap! No, reform, reform! Or we could begin to think seriously about alternative educational models. This is where I now stand. Care to join me?