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Faculty Are Ineffective, Students Are Whiny, and Colleges so Misguided as to Be a Waste of Money*

*This is what we hear. This is why it’s not true.

Higher education in America today has many problems, almost enough to be considered a broken system. But when media critics talk about what is wrong with our colleges and universities, they usually sell false goods. The effect of the current conversation about American higher education is a further erosion of exactly what is needed to fix it: faith that learning matters.

The past few months have seen a flourishing of think pieces and talking points with twin themes about what is wrong with American higher education: that students are too coddled and that a college degree gives a poor return on investment. A picture has emerged that American colleges and universities are too weak and too expensive; they train students poorly and keep them in a state of perpetual childhood; they specialize in trigger warnings and worthless degrees.

The two themes were enmeshed in remarks President Obama made on September 14. The president argued that college was about expanding the way students look at the world but also that colleges needed to be more accountable for graduation rates and student debt. He gained most attention for criticizing how many liberal students expected to be “coddled and protected from different points of view,” and he rejected campus political correctness. His comments came a few days after his administration’s release of the College Scorecard, a website that lists college costs, graduation rates, and post-graduation salaries. His comments also drew heavily in theme and language from an article published in The Atlantic’s September issue, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. That article argued that colleges and universities are ignoring the teachings of cognitive behavioral therapy by letting students avoid rather than confront difficult topics. According to the authors, liberal students are demanding overly-sensitive policies that both stifle academic freedom and stunt their own psychological development.

But President Obama’s remarks, the College Scorecard, and the Atlantic piece all mistake what is wrong with higher education and who is at fault. Like much of the current conversation about American colleges and universities, they blame the victims of our broken higher education system and ignore more egregious perpetrators. The faults lie not with one particular group, but with a flawed cultural and economic system to which many students, parents, administrators, and commentators contribute.

That most critics are engaging in victim-blaming is most obvious and egregious in the conversation about trigger warnings and political correctness. Many voices have weighed in to articulate the intentions and benefits of trigger warnings, but the tenor of the pieces criticizing campus culture continue to make it seem as if college teachers cannot say anything without offending overly-sensitive students. I am a young teacher; I have taught seven of my own classes and was a teaching assistant for ten semesters. By my reckoning I have only taught somewhat over 600 students in some capacity. I have taught, as a white man, about slavery, racial violence, sexual violence, native displacement, mass incarceration, and many more difficult topics in American history without any students objecting that I made them uncomfortable. Only one student has ever opted out of one of my class meetings (of my knowing it) because the subject was too difficult. She had been sexually assaulted and, under the advice of her therapist, did not want to be present for a class discussion about sexual coercion in antebellum slavery. Never once has a student complained that I personally made the classroom too controversial or damaging for them. My own research involves the history of racial violence during Reconstruction, and I do not shy from bringing into the classroom horrific stories my research has uncovered. In fact, students have responded the best when I have pushed them the hardest academically and discussed the most unsettling realities of the violence in America’s past. I often tell students that it is only by feeling uncomfortable that they can learn something new, and my students have responded very positively to this message. I am obviously both lucky and privileged, but I think my experience speaks to why critics of campus culture are mistaken.

For one, I benefit enormously from my racial and gender privilege when discussing difficult issues of race, gender, and sexuality with students. After all, women faculty members and faculty of color consistently receive worse course evaluations than white men do. My students have never commented upon my appearance, have never accused me of hating white people, have never claimed that I was overly emotional—all things friends and colleagues who are not white men have told me they have heard. Critiques of trigger warnings and microaggressions rarely point out that college students themselves are often guilty of sexism, racism, and homophobia in how they treat both fellow students and their professors. Not all college students are perfect and some are in fact damaging academic freedom on campus, but those who do are not usually left-leaning activists who want an end to racist, sexist, and homophobic language.

Second, most pieces treat student demands for trigger warnings and student opt-outs as more or less equal. A very good recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (which helpfully points out that campuses are not mandating trigger warnings) flirts with this problem by surveying different students’ requests to avoid disturbing materials. A student who has been sexually assaulted, veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress, and a conservative who objected to a required reading that humanized LGBT people are all treated by the article as requests different in degree but not kind. But obviously these are not the same forms of discomfort. Some students are actively trying to avoid learning (and prevent others from learning, too) while other students are instead navigating how to heal from their own trauma as they learn about the world. It seems quite in keeping with the principles of academic freedom to allow a student grappling with the aftermath of a sexual assault not to have to sit in a class with other students casually asserting against my objections that perhaps Harriet Jacobs was not really raped. Her request is very different from that of a student who does not want to read that homophobia hurts LGBT people.

Furthermore, most attacks upon trigger warnings implicitly assert that college students’ demands for safe places are unnecessary. But of course the awful reality is that schools are not safe for many students (or faculty; on the same day Obama made his remarks a history professor in Mississippi was shot and killed in his office). The recent shootings in Oregon, Arizona, and Texas ought to make that clear. But in addition to mass shootings, colleges and universities are the sites property crimes, physical assaults, and relationship violence. Campuses, like American cities, have gotten safer over the past decades; violent crime went down 27 percent on college campuses between 2004 and 2011. But they are still not safe enough, especially for female and LGBT students. The number most accepted—verified by numerous campus climate surveys (e.g., the American Association of Universities’ recent survey of 27 campuses, Rutgers, the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago)—is that upwards of 20% of women in college have experienced some form of sexual assault. As I have taught over 600 students in my young career, if my classrooms are at all in line with averages I have already taught about 60 women who have been sexually assaulted—and only one has opted out of one discussion section. The idea that trigger warnings coddle students might work in a world where students are never shot, beaten, or raped—but they are. Many college students denounce microaggressions and request trigger warnings not because they are weak or seek to remain in childhood, but because too many of them know that a racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic world can hurt or kill them.

A similar problem of victim blaming and misidentifying root causes dominates the conversations about college costs. As Christopher Nelson pointed out in Inside Higher Ed, the College Scorecard has serious flaws in the way it was designed. But the problem runs even deeper than one flawed governmental website. Certainly there is a tuition crisis. Soaring costs are being shouldered by students going deeper and deeper into debt. And, the common cries go, students emerge with degrees worthless at generating a salary high enough to pay off that debt. This feedback loop has led to very real problems of student anxiety about choosing their major and effective academic performance. Occasionally this even results in student suicides—yet another tragic sign that campuses are not the safe spaces critics assume.

The blame for student anxiety often falls upon students themselves. But in my experience it ought to be put at the feet of a relentlessly competitive culture aided and abetted by parents and those very commenters calling for more accountability. Today’s students have been raised by “No Child Left Behind,” a system named as if learning was a race. These students’ admission to college was based on standardized test scores (proven empirically to have no predictive value for college performance and to be racist and classist), on having crammed as many extracurricular activities as humanly possible into their lives from grade six (or age six?) on, and on having written admissions essays that claimed they were the most accomplished, unique, and philanthropic individuals ever to grace the good green earth. Then upon entering college they were forced—by parents, by the structure of degree programs created by faculty, or by their own misguided ambitions—to decide early upon career tracks. They must meet minimum GPA requirements in order to get into the pre-career majors with the right internships or laboratory experience to get into a professional school after graduation. Our students are not anxious and depressed because of weak-willed, coddling professors, but because of ultra-demanding career choices created by an economy of stagnant wages and rising inequality.

Part of the problem of rising college costs does stem from a kind of misguided activism by students as they shop around to demand better dorms, fancier recreational facilities, better athletic teams, and more on-campus organizations. Clearly students need well-rounded lives. Good dorms, decent gyms, and a healthy extracurricular life are essential both to happiness and to learning—there is a central place for them in the life of the American mind. But our current collegiate arms race is driving up tuition, straining campus resources with already bloated administrations, and stifling the hiring of more faculty and academic administrative staff. Students and parents use rankings systems and their pocket books to get more successful athletic teams, more campus fast-food options, more pre-orientation camping trips but fewer, less accomplished, and more poorly-paid teachers.

Many schools have made myriad poor administrative decisions that have led to the soaring costs of higher education. Desperate for higher enrollments they have funneled billions to consulting firms who offer essentially the same advice (a trend critiqued by Benjamin Ginsberg, especially in his calls for Massive Open Online Administrations). Take-home pay for top-level leaders—now sometimes called CEOs and CFOs—continues to skyrocket. Salaries for athletic coaches have also soared while salaries for faculty have remained stagnant (see any of the recent annual reports of the American Association of University Professors; 2015’s is here).

But poor decisions by administrators do not mean that liberal arts educations are worthless. Instead they demonstrate that the idea that there must be a constant financial return on investment in education is itself corrosive and expensive. The people who have actually lost employment in today’s climate are administrators who play the rat race poorly and faculty members who dare to be controversial public intellectuals. Left-leaning student activists have yet to fire anyone, but several boards of trustees have revoked faculty hires, sacked presidents, and hired chancellors with no academic skills but bulky business resumes. It is no wonder students are overly anxious and extra sensitive. Students are not stymying their own ability to cope with trauma so much as colliding head-on with a traumatizing world that devalues their individual educational dreams and sometimes their very humanity.

Today’s conversations about college costs and cries of political correctness gone amuck misidentify the victims and the perpetrators of very real problems. The result is a message that faculty are ineffective, students are whiny, and colleges and universities so misguided as to be wastes of money. Far too few voices remind us the vital importance for our nation and our world of interrogating how art, science, citizenship, identity, and power work. Real learning, the consensus instead seems to be, ought to happen while on the job at multinational corporations. Everything worth knowing, says conventional wisdom, can be learned through poorly- or unpaid internships and by internet searches. It is that message against public funding, in favor of privatization, and against democracy that is destroying higher education. The American mind is not being coddled, it is being sold down the river.