Is College Too Easy?

This opinion piece from the LA Times is thought-provoking. Is college too easy? I have always suspected so, given the lack of skills I see in students who take my classes. Since I get them as Juniors or Seniors, I am not dealing with newbies to the college scene. Is it too much to expect that they be able to write? Do basic math? Reason?

This of course has been a complaint for decades. When I was on a work-study program in college, I worked for an econ professor one semester. He asked me to grade some essay questions on an exam. I was mortified that most answers were near unintelligible. At the time, I figured that the class after mine had been exposed to radiation or something. Or maybe they grew up on Scooby Doo instead of Bugs Bunny. Now I suspect that most all college students have such shortcomings, irrespective of birth year.

It should have been an indication that something was wrong when I learned that many of my students take 15 or more credit-hours, work 20-30 hours, and have an active social life, often involving toxic amounts of alcohol. I assume they sleep sometimes, but just when remains a mystery.

How can a student possibly pass classes of any substance under those conditions? Answer: They probably shouldn’t. Question: Then why do we? Pass them, that is. I think part of it is excessive sympathy. Professors hate the thought of: a) causing a student to delay graduation, and b) having that same student in class again. Better to make things easy and just give them a passing grade.

Another part is a creeping erosion of any kind of standards in our culture at large. Postmodern sickness has made any criticism of anyone for any reason automatically suspect. I think some professors wonder in the backs of their minds whether they really have any right to judge. The first time I saw this in action was during a job visit some years ago.

On a job visit, it is usually wise not to attack the views of those hosting you, though sometimes the urge is hard to overcome. In this case, one of the faculty members went on and on during a car ride about the faults of the “British” system and its “rigor.” Her criticism seemed to be that standards were somehow bad. At least that’s what I made of it. She boasted that one of her student teams had found a creative solution for the team’s slacker (every student team has one, sometimes two). They sent him out for doughnuts!

Now I will be the first to agree that sometimes it is best to get slackers out of the way. However, this professor was ecstatic that the team had found a use for him–a victory, no doubt, for a warmer, cuddlier approach to getting things done. The response that remained in my head, though it was pounding at the interior of my lips was, “You *&%*& idiot. Do you really think an employer is going to continue to pay a project team member whose greatest ability is fetching snacks? And just out of curiosity, what possible justification can you conjure up for leading this student to believe that is acceptable performance?”

We turn out overgrown boys instead of men because we don’t hold them to standards. We turn out little girls instead of women because we don’t hold them to standards. We allow illiterate and incompetent teachers to educate our children because we don’t hold them to standards. All in all, we are becoming a society of people with few standards at all, save some vague notion of “social justice,” one that dares not bring up our individual shortcomings.

The result? An almost total lack of self-respect. College is not about gaining a foundation from which to live a flourishing life. It is about getting rewarded because “I worked hard.” It is about getting results from a minimal and mindless effort at fulfilling class requirements. Instead of a rite of passage through which one’s mettle is tested, it is another undeserved pat on the back for just showing up now and again. I’m OK, you’re OK, the whole damn world is OK.

No, it is not. We are not OK or even close to it. As a nation, we are soft and stupid, lazy and weak. We have forfeited any claim to independence, failed to produce any evidence of fortitude, and abandoned any willingness to face ourselves. Each generation slips further into the abyss and this will continue until we own up to our ghastly commitment to nothing at all. Will our failure to answer life’s call lead to a catastrophe? I believe so, and it will be anything but easy.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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