Tuesday, June 07, 2005

College expectations

I'm linking to an article from the Staten Island Advance about the graduation speaker at the College of Staten Island (CSI), author Erica Jong. The article struck me because of the very stark difference shown between the expectations of the students and families on one hand and the faculty, speaker, and administration on the other. In this case, the differences were over the appropriate nature of a commencement address, but it seems to me that this echoes much deeper differences, and not just at CSI. Of course, being a smart-ass, I won't try to resist making snide remarks here and there.

CSI is part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, awarding Associates degrees and also Bachelors and Masters. My guess is that the graduates were mostly Associate degree recipients. To make a long story short, Ms. Jong gave a talk about the misuse of words in advertising, politics, and other aspects of daily life, in which truth is replaced by propaganda. She makes the point that this is now so pervasive that most Americans no longer expect that what is said publicly is the truth. She then connected this to the idea that a college education can prepare someone to discriminate between the truth and PR and that it is her hope that the graduates will go on to demand the truth. This doesn't seem to me to be very controversial, or even an unusual commencement speech.

That is where I part company with at least some of the students and family in attendance. They booed. They tossed beach balls. They told her to shut up or go home (though I think she's a New Yorker). Their reaction is best summed up by one parent's remark:

She gave a political speech when she was supposed to be doing a pep talk... Whoever heard of a commencement speaker talking about body bags?
For those who aren't aware of it, commencement speakers' topics can run the gamut from humorous observations to very serious. I have to imagine that body bags were probably mentioned now and then during Vietnam-era commencements.

This reaction seems to be similar to other "differences of opinion", such as those regarding "liberal faculty", making courses more "relevant" (i.e., practical), and the general idea of universities as vendors and students as customers. One possibility for this might be an increase in the population attending college -- many more have purely economic expectations than used to be. I would expect that this would be especially true for an institution like CSI, where likely most graduates are the first people in their families to receive a college degree. However, I'm not sure that this is the entire, or even the best, explanation.

I suppose my idea isn't completely different, in that I agree that the number of students in college for purely economic purposes has increased. We've gone from a society in which college was a pathway to a better life (but where there were other pathways on which one could make a living) to one in which it is becoming necessary to support any middle class lifestyle. Certainly, in the past, there were plenty of students who went to college to make more money, and parents who sacrificed to send their children to college so they could have better lives. Egotistically, I'll mention Richard Feynman and myself as two examples of people who were the first in their families to receive college degrees. Certainly, earning potential was a big factor in me gong to college. But there was also the idea of education being a catalyst for personal growth and fulfillment -- a better life not being just making more money.

We are now moving into an era where a substantial number of students and families won't give a rat's ass about "personal growth and fulfillment". They pay money, they want the tools and certification to get jobs, and they resent being subjected to "irrelevant crap". I don't know how to respond to this. Certainly, I feel that this is not the best mode of operation for a university. I've stated before that I don't view students as ordinary customers of universities, both because universities have other customers (employers, governments, society as a whole) and because the "product" that we deliver is rather unique in that its true value is likely not to be seen by students or families until many years after graduation. So, are we failing in our jobs by not getting students to the point where they understand the idea of education as more than training? Should we change our core values? Or should we develop a bifurcated higher education system, either within existing universities or by ceding part of higher education to the universities of phoenixes?

OK, and now for the snide remark. Here's a quote from another attendee:

It was disgusting, despicable. She called politicians liars, called us all liars. She trashed America. Mostly, she just wanted to talk. It was personal spewing. There was nothing about graduation."
Wow! A person who got upset at a speaker who noted that politicians lie. Next thing, folks will be defending used car salesmen and spammers.

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