Tastes great, less filling Higher Education

April 14, 1996|By Thomas H. Naylor and William H. Willimon

Few parents realize what they are doing to their children by sending them to some of our most prestigious institutions of higher education. All too many of our colleges and universities charge too much and teach too little to too many students. In this unfriendly, permissive, anti-intellectual environment, students take too few courses, drink too much, party too much and learn too little from faculties concerned more with political correctness than truth.

One might hope that our colleges would provide cutting-edge solutions -- or at least some solutions -- to our nation's many social, economic, political and environmental problems. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Today's college students are into consumerism, hedonism, anti-intellectualism and unabashed individualism, which give rise to alcohol abuse, indolence and excessive careerism.

If one listens to college students talk in the dining hall, the library or the student union, the expression heard most often from them on many campuses is, "I can't believe how drunk I was last night."

College students spend more than $5.5 billion annually on alcoholic beverages and consume more than 4 billion cans of beer -- the equivalent of 34 gallons of beer per student. Ninety-five percent of the violent crime committed on campus is alcohol related, including 90 percent of the college rapes.

We don't claim that college drinking is worse today than in the past, although there is evidence suggesting that a major new factor in student drunkenness is the growing percentage of women who binge-drink. Perhaps the main difference today is that the behavioral consequences of alcohol abuse are no longer considered socially unacceptable.

Nothing better characterizes the self-image of college students than one of their favorite self-designations -- "We work hard, we play hard." But how is it possible to work hard and maintain the kind of lifestyle which pervades college campuses today?

How often do students think hard in an environment in which they receive higher grades for doing less work in fewer courses ** than was the case a few years ago? With no Saturday classes, few early morning classes and the widespread use of work-saving personal computers, students have far more free time on their hands than they can effectively use.

Students at Duke's School of Business were asked to write a personal strategic plan for the 10-year period after graduation. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" With few exceptions, they wanted three things -- money, power and things (very big things, including automobiles, yachts and even airplanes).

Primarily concerned with their careers and the growth of their financial portfolios, their personal plans contained little room for family, intellectual development, spiritual growth or social responsibility.

Their mandate to the faculty was, "Teach me how to be a money-making machine. Give me only the facts, tools and techniques required to ensure my instantaneous financial success." All else was irrelevant.

Most colleges -- in response to market pressures -- are so preoccupied with careerism that they do little to facilitate students' search for meaning. The absence of meaning leads to drunken fraternity house bashes, date rape, vandalism and acts of violence.

Students have no incentive to delay gratification because they place so little faith in a future that has no meaning for them. Instead, they pursue the elusive dream that it is possible "to have it all and to have it now" -- a dream that turns out to be a lie, a materialistic cover for lack of meaning.

While subscribing to an ideology that raises individualism to almost godlike status, more college students behave as world-class conformists. Some have tried -- often in vain -- to find meaning through the approval of parents, personal computers, excessive television viewing, rock music, spectator sports, physical fitness and sexual promiscuity.

Ironically, lacking any sense of direction, any inner conviction about what their lives ought to mean, they become the compliant victims of external pressures imposed by their parents, their passions and Corporate America.

Paraphrasing The Economist: To undergraduates, universities are landlords; to scholars they are multidisciplinary think tanks; to entrepreneurs they are applied research parks; to economic development officials they are economic growth centers; and to gung-ho alumni they are sponsors of professional football teams disguised as college teams.

Is it any wonder that the cost of higher education is out of control and the mission of most universities appears to be garbled and inconsistent? American universities have tried unsuccessfully to be all things to all people. In so doing, they find themselves in too many unrelated disconnected businesses. They have become academic behemoths.

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