Anthony Grafton has a thoughtful piece in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books that reviews a series of recent books on the university system and draws some sobering conclusions.
For most of them [today’s students], in the end, what the university offers is not skills or knowledge but credentials: a diploma that signals employability and basic work discipline. Those who manage to learn a lot often—though happily not always—come from highly educated families and attend highly selective colleges and universities. They are already members of an economic and cultural elite. Our great, democratic university system has become a pillar of social stability—a broken community many of whose members drift through, learning little, only to return to the economic and social box that they were born into…Is the higher education bubble about to pop? I don’t know. The more thoughtful writers warn against monocausal explanations. Bowen and his colleagues, for example, test the effects of student loans on attrition rates. They conclude that it is not clear that debt is a primary cause of student failure. Still, these developments are interwoven, in the experience of many students if not in the intentions of legislators. Imagine what it’s like to be a normal student nowadays. You did well—even very well—in high school. But you arrive at university with little experience in research and writing and little sense of what your classes have to do with your life plans. You start your first year deep in debt, with more in prospect. You work at Target or a fast-food outlet to pay for your living expenses. You live in a vast, shabby dorm or a huge, flimsy off-campus apartment complex, where your single with bath provides both privacy and isolation. And you see professors from a great distance, in space as well as culture: from the back of a vast dark auditorium, full of your peers checking Facebook on their laptops.It’s no wonder, in these circumstances, that many students never really internalize the new demands and standards of university work. Instead they drift from course to course, looking for entertainment and easy grades. Nor is it surprising that many aren’t ready when trouble comes. Students drink too much alcohol, smoke too much marijuana, play too many computer games, wreck cars, become pregnant, get overwhelmed trying to help anorexic roommates, and too often lose the modest but vital support previously provided by a parent who has been laid off. Older students—and these days most are older than traditional university age—often have to work full-time and care for children or parents, or both. Those likeliest to encounter these problems are also the ones who haven’t been schooled since birth to find the thread that can lead them through the labyrinths of the bureaucracy. They aren’t confident that they will see an invitingly open door, where a friendly adviser or professor is eager to help them, and they don’t have parents hovering, eager to find that helper for them.
This is sober analysis of one of the most troubled and important institutions we have. Grafton doesn’t side wholeheartedly with either those who attack the system root and branch or those who want to defend the status quo. He’s struggling to develop a fair minded and honest perspective on a complex system that does some things brilliantly well and others abysmally. I don’t agree with everything he has to say, but I find that engaging with his thoughts helps me develop my own — and often, leads me to question some of my assumptions. We need much more work like this as our society looks to reform and restructure postsecondary education. Read the entire piece here.