Erin O’Connor’s “Critical Mass” (in the blogroll) is an absolutely essential blog for folks with an interest in the higher ed scene. One of her latest posts describes a book I think I’ll be looking into soon, Craig Brandon’s The Five-Year Party, which O’Connor suggests examines “the almost nihilistic, often dangerous non-seriousness of students themselves.”
I certainly have had my share of those students, the ones who haven’t figured out that, in the words of a colleague of mine, “Thirsty Thursdays lead to Flunk-out Fridays.” The problem is compounded by the fact that a significant portion of the student body attends Mondoville as a way of extending athletic careers beyond high school. On the other hand, I have had (and now have) several remarkably good students, and a few I would cheerfully match up with students at any university in the country.
Now, there have always been kids who couldn’t handle the freedom of going away to school, kids who flunked, who partied themselves out of college or who headed home due to unexpected pregnancies or other problems to which the flesh is heir. Still others squander time and money on what we jokingly call the five-year plan (which is increasingly turning to the six-year plan.) So what’s the difference now, and why is it a big enough deal to warrant a book that warrants my interest (and perhaps yours?)
The difference, according to reviews of the book, is that ostensible institutions of higher education have become hitherto unindicted co-conspirators. Indeed, some administrators see these kids as a revenue stream, and alternately coddle and exploit them. College becomes Lotus Land, with a six-figure cover charge for four, five, or six years, a cover paid by parents and taxpayers in many cases. The worst offenders of this sort are what the book calls “subprime colleges,” according to the publisher:
The worst of these schools are the “subprime” colleges, where performance standards and accountability have been completely abandoned. Students enjoy a five year party with minimal responsibilities while their parents pay the bills. These schools’ investment decisions (first-class gyms and dining centers) are all geared to attracting students that want to have a good time, and their brochures all emphasize the fun aspects of the college experience—there are very few pictures of students actually studying or in class. And after graduation, former students are frequently unable to find work in their chosen fields, thanks to their school’s reputation with employers, and unable to afford the payments on sizable student loans.
I’d like to think that Mondoville hasn’t reached that level (for one thing, we can’t afford facilities that posh), but as the book notes, more and more colleges are moving in that direction. What’s the solution?
There are several possibilities, which may work best in combination, but O’Connor offers a possible answer, and it’s the one I’ve tried to employ throughout my career:
[Professors] can each ensure that their own classroom is a place where effort, application, hard work, questioning, and intellectual achievement are valued–and where headgames and nonsense and silliness have no place. They can make it clear that the grades they give are real and must be earned. And they can make it clear that this is where the fun lies in college–that learning is the party.
Perhaps she and I are dreaming here, but again, for those of us who believe that the stuff we think about matters, I think these are dreams on which we must act if we are to be anything other than caretakers at decadent day-care centers.