In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks buys glibly into Arum & Roksa's assumption: "The average student at a four-year college studies alone just over one hour per day. That is roughly half of how much students were compelled to study just a generation ago," says Brooks in his paraphrase (emphasis mine). Meanwhile, Brooks continues, "Colleges have become socially rich, stocked with student centers, student organizations, expensive gyms, concerts and activities."
(Clearing throat) Ahem. Yes, I've noticed that many colleges are emphasizing extra-curricular amenities over academics, expanding their facilities rather than their faculties, and agonizing over whether they have rock-climbing walls and gourmet cafeterias rather than investing in pointless little things like ... teaching. (Please read sarcasm here.)
But where is this distorted sense of priorities coming from? I don't know any single faculty member who supports the continual leaching of funding from academics and toward flashy facilities, or the increasing reliance on and exploitation of adjunct faculty while investing more and more money in stuff like swimming pools. For the sake of argument I'll concede that some such people might exist somewhere. But from my vantage point it appears that, as much as academics are notorious about disagreeing, most of us share similar dismay about the shift from scholarly pursuits toward things that should be peripheral to our central mission.
This distorted sense of priorities, I would argue, reflects the priorities of certain (not all) administrators, rather than faculty--though faculty are always the ones blamed when students don't appear to be learning enough. A generation ago, says Brooks, students were "compelled" to study much more; nowadays, according to Brooks, today's students have attended colleges where they were "not taught to work hard."
But if a student fails to work hard, who is responsible for that? And how much is the onus on the college to "compel" students to study?
I find much more compelling the argument made by Hunter Rawlings in a June 9th article for the Washington Post: "College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one." Rawlings criticizes our society's penchant for analyzing the "value" of a college education in "purely economic terms"--a subject in itself, of course. After discussing the non-monetary value of education, he then points out what most of us who teach already know: "The value of a degree depends more on the students' input than on the college's curriculum." Here he states something that most of us who teach have witnessed: "I have seen excellent students get great educations at average colleges, and unmotivated students get poor educations at excellent colleges."
What matters most, says Rawlings--and this certainly resonates with me--is student effort: "You need a professor who provokes and a student who stops slumbering." Universities do, of course, have responsibilities to meet, and it's a two-way street: "It is the responsibility of colleges and universities to place students in environments that provide these opportunities. It is the responsibility of students to seize them."
I don't argue completely with some of Arun & Roksa's findings; as someone whose job it is to teach and mentor college-age students, I do see that many of them have a difficult time, at least initially, with navigating post-college life. The challenges that Arum & Roksa refer to--difficulty in finding good jobs or establishing stable and long-term romantic relationships--are real situations for many.
But what might be the underlying reasons? Are today's "adrift young adults" products of a university system that failed to "compel" more studying, as Brooks suggests? Is the difficulty that many young adults encounter with finding good jobs--or, closely related, the fact that many move back with their parents for a while after college--the result of lax demands by lazy university professors? (As for the problem of establishing stable romantic relationships--I could expound for hours on that subject, but is this even remotely related to the purpose of a college education?)
Or, could it be that we have an American culture that is too often anti-intellectual and lazy? Could it be that we are obsessed with instant gratification, meaningless entertainment, and mindless consumption? Could it be that our consumeristic society promotes the commodification of everything, including education, and including human beings?
Could it be that well-paying jobs for young adults are scarce because corporate greed has made it systematically more difficult for young adults to find decent jobs?
Could it be that college graduates often move back home not because they're psychologically perpetual teenagers made lazy by "slacker" colleges, but because in a world where most wealth is controlled by a tiny minority, their economic situation necessitates a shared housing situation?
Could it be that too many university administrators, eager to grab student tuition dollars, are all too willing to offer students the same pablum that permeates the rest of our culture, rather than modeling a different set of possibilities through their own spending and planning priorities?
In his discussion of Arum & Roksa's latest, Brooks takes an interesting turn when he suggests that life itself often teaches young adults what they need to learn. He optimistically claims (though without providing evidence) that "by age 30, the vast majority of them are through it"--"it" being the general aimlessness of the 20-something years. "After a youth dazzled by possibilities and the fear of missing out," says Brooks, "they discover that committing to the few things you love is a sort of liberation."
On that point I agree with Brooks--commitment is the key to a successful adulthood. To make a choice almost always means choosing against something else. That's why it can be hard to decide to marry someone, or what field to major in, or where to go on this summer's vacation, or what to order for tonight's dinner. Growing up, to a large extent, is about accepting and ultimately embracing the choices we make, recognizing what the late folk singer Harry Chapin sang in his under-appreciated ballad "Story of a Life": "For every dream that took me high, there's been a dream that's passed me by."
And if we want a few dreams to "take us high"--a few goals realized, a few life visions achieved--we have to commit: This primary relationship and not that one. This home and not another. This career; this hobby; these children. This life.
We also have to do the hard work demanded by all those things; any dream worth the trouble requires considerable time, energy, and effort. In our current consumeristic, convenience-minded, capitalistic, commodified society (how's that for alliteration?), fulfilling our goals often means going against the grain, tuning out countless cultural messages, joining forces with the like-minded, and persisting in the face of extremely long odds.
The irony is that for all the hand-wringing by people like Brooks, Arum & Roksa about the supposed inefficacy of the 20-something generation, they actually play into that very possibility when they suggest that young adult laziness lies in the failure of the university to "compel" sufficient study time. If we really want more of our young adults to step up to the plate sooner, to take charge of their own lives more readily, to make the sometimes-tough choices and commitments that adulthood requires, then we have to ask them to do exactly that. Rather than putting all the onus on colleges, we need to heed the words of Rawlings: "Good teachers 'supply oxygen' to their classrooms . . . students need to make a similar commitment to breathe it in and be enlivened by it." Placing the onus entirely on the teacher actually perpetuates the kind of "learned helplessness" that Arun & Roksa find so troublesome.
Finally, if we want today's young adults to be successful, we'd also do well to work toward creating a world more rich in opportunity for all--a world in which higher education is economically accessible for all who are willing to make the effort, a world in which decent-paying jobs are easier to come by than they are now. Not least of all, we need to work toward a world in which those held most accountable are not the young and powerless and indebted, but those who actually have the power and the means to provide opportunities to today's young adults.