We hear a lot about making college affordable.
But what about the quality of education?
Are students being exposed to different ideas and broadening their grasp of history, literature, and philosophy?
Megan McArdle has a must-read piece headlined "Sheltered Students Go to College, Avoid Education" over at Bloomberg View. McArdle, who went to the University of Pennsylvania in the 1990s, has seen attempts at censorship on campus. But she's seeing something new now:
What I don't understand is the tenor of the censorship. When I was in college, people who wanted to censor others were forthrightly moralistic, trying to silence "bad" speech. Today's students don't couch their demands in the language of morality, but in the jargon of safety. They don't want you to stop teaching books on difficult themes because those books are wrong, but because they're dangerous, and should not be approached without a trigger warning. They don't want to silence speakers because their ideas are evil, but because they represent a clear and present danger to the university community. If the school goes ahead and has the talk anyway, they build safe spaces so that people can cower from the scary speech together.
Are ideas dangerous? Certainly their effects can be. Ideas like "Asbestos sure makes good insulation" and "Bleed patients to balance the humors" racked up quite a number of fatalities. But of course, the ideas themselves didn't kill anyone; that was left to the people who put them into practice. The new language of campus censorship cuts out the middleman and claims that merely hearing wrong, unpleasant or offensive ideas is so dangerous to the mental health of the listener that people need to be protected from the experience.
During the time when people are supposed to be learning to face an often hard world as adults, and going through the often uncomfortable process of building their intellectual foundations, they are demanding to be sheltered from anything that might challenge their beliefs or recall unpleasant facts to their mind. And increasingly, colleges are accommodating them.
Why is this happening? Young people used to go to college and encounter all sorts of new ideas and not need trigger warnings. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt address this in an Atlantic article on "The Coddling of the American Mind," which McArdle references. Two of the reasons: overprotection of children born after 1980 and the rise of an angrier, more pervasive form of partisanship.
Tthere is also a "regulatory component:" the Obama administration Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has redefined offensive speech very broadly and administrators go out of their way not to attract a lawsuit by an offended student.
But there is something else at work, according to McArdle:
But here's a candidate Haidt and Lukianoff don't mention: the steady shift toward viewing college as a consumer experience, rather than an institution that is there to shape you toward its own ideal. I don't want to claim that colleges used to be idylls in which the deans never worried about collecting tuition checks; colleges have always worried about attracting enough students. But cultural and economic shifts have pushed students toward behaving more like consumers in a straight commercial transaction, and less like people who were being inducted into a non-market institution.
Mass education, and the rise of colleges as labor market gatekeepers, have transformed colleges from a place to be imbued with the intangible qualities of character and education that the elite wanted their children to have, and into a place where you go to buy a ticket to a good job. I strongly suspect that the increasing importance of student loans also plays a role, because control over the tuition checks has shifted from parents to students. And students are more worried about whether their experience is unpleasant than are parents, who are most interested in making sure their child is prepared for adulthood.
You see the results most visibly in the lazy rivers and rock-climbing walls and increasingly luxurious dorms that colleges use to compete for students, but such a shift does not limit itself to extraneous amenities. Professors marvel at the way students now shamelessly demand to be given good grades, regardless of their work ethic, but that's exactly what you would expect if the student views themselves as a consumer, and the product as a credential, rather than an education.
Maybe in addition to the cost of college we should be worried about the content of college.
And at the risk of being utilitarian, a liberal arts degree isn't as useless as you might have been led to believe.