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Should We Burst the Campus "Bubble"—Or Balance It?

Every college campus is considered by someone to be a “bubble.” Even where there is no town and gown tension, universities are often thoughts of as worlds apart. This is often considered grounds for criticism of college as a whole. Some think a university campus is nothing but a soap bubble. But if we examine its iridescence, we can see many ways in which it can be an excellent point of entry for the real world.

People talk about airports being strange places because you can walk around in sweatpants, drinking alcohol, with a pillow wrapped around your neck at 10 AM, and no one asks any questions. College campuses can be somewhat similar. Some students stroll around in pajamas at all hours, people sleep in the library in the middle of the day, and it’s possible to get run over by a skateboard on the sidewalk. No one blinks an eye.

To the extent that college campuses foster unrealistic expectations about adult life, bubble criticisms can be legitimate. There are students who develop very bad life habits in college while testing their liberty. They are late to class, they don’t hand in work on time, they can sit in a classroom while completely ignoring the instruction. Colleges may technically have dress codes, but they rarely enforce them. Some people cheat on their assignments. There can be such an emphasis on liberty and independence that some college students become accustomed to only occasionally applying themselves and not worrying much about meeting expectations.

It's interesting that the people who want college to exist mainly as career preparation talk so much about majors and coursework, and very little about the other aspects of life on campus. In the real world, knowing poetry won’t hurt you at your job as much as being constantly late. Not taking any writing seriously is a problem in your work emails. What you wear is taken by others as an indicator of how seriously you should be regarded. The workplace equivalent of cheating on a test may result in criminal consequences. When it comes to the lack of professional expectations, the bubble can be burst a bit.

College may be about self-discovery in many ways, but it need not be untethered from the harsh reality that very often it is not just self-evaluation that will affect your life. Evaluation by others will often determine your paycheck and position, whether or not it should. Students should not be shielded from those kinds of realities, however unpleasant. At a certain point, students need to learn to hand in work on time and apply themselves to the best of their abilities. Whether or not students have “professional” majors, they can handle the expectation of more professionalism.

While a university should not foster prolonged adolescence, it is not wrong for it to be special and set apart. Universities are places where new learning and scholarship emerge and serious research happens. Universities uniquely produce new knowledge and then quickly transmit it to students, who are often very young people. There are few workplaces that engage in cutting edge research and invite eighteen-year-olds, who are testing out the field, along for the ride. Over the years, coursework has given students with limited experience access to the minds of people like Hannah Arendt, John Dewey, and Richard Feynman. Apart from universities, where else is it so easy to talk to the person who “wrote the book” on a subject? Can you get office hours with patent holders everywhere? There is beauty in the bubble.

College can be developmental, without deferring adulthood in any way. When else will students be able to engage the life of the mind, typically full-time? When else will they have non-stop opportunities to wrestle with ideas? There are advantages to being in a place where people sit around and passionately argue about Aristotle and where non-mathematicians work out equations together; where people from many different backgrounds write and publish their own poetry for the community at hand and where students can attend sporting and cultural events for personal enrichment at very little cost. Time in college can expose students to a broader swath of the world than they are likely to encounter on their own.

It is fine for a university to be unusual compared to other environments. That does not make it inherently incapable of preparing people for the real world. It is precisely because a university has such variety and intensity that it is able to send people into so many different career paths. Few places give you such a range of later possibilities.

The bubble doesn’t need to be burst, it needs to be balanced. Perhaps the best way to balance it is to resolve the differences in professional expectations between the campus and the career field. Not only will it make graduates better employees, it will help them to actually take full advantage of the opportunities that college presents. What should be unique and different about a university is its focus, the excitement that exists for learning and ideas. Nothing should water that down. A college campus can, like an airport, be an unusual place—but it should be because of all the potential destinations, not the neck pillows.