As a university student, I am fascinated by the seemingly metaphysical nature of the university. However, that symbolic nature is slowly being diminished in our time, much to my displeasure. This has prompted me to do some extensive research on today’s ailments of the university, and what I have written here is perhaps only the abstract of a much larger work that I will write on this subject. I write this smaller piece now to briefly express my grievances at the current state of the university.

But I am not the only one with grievances toward the universities; the modern university is facing mounting criticism from parents and students alike. Many find themselves outraged each year at the rising costs of higher education. We see far too many students being weighed down by the immense burden of student debt. We also see that many students struggle to find employment after graduation. I commonly hear people criticize the universities for offering “worthless” degrees at absurd tuition prices. We also see that the ideological homogenization of university faculty and students has caused our campuses to become sanctuaries for leftist activism, with political correctness and trigger warnings being used to cudgel out viewpoints that don’t conform to the contemporary campus orthodoxy. I certainly should not forget to mention just how pervasive grade inflation has become on today’s campuses, even at the “elite” universities. Needless to say, the American university has lost its way.

Of course, the universities themselves are not entirely to blame; the students also come to the universities to do something, but it is not to learn. Our educational system has primed the students to engage in all but academia upon entering the university. Far too often do I see students march from class to class in soulless routine, never considering the fact that what they learn in their classes could possibly have a meaningful dimension outside of its utilitarian function.

Additionally, the general education programs are so broad and unfocused, that, as outlined by a former president of Harvard University, the students never actually learn what the administrators expect them to learn.[1] The gen-ed requirements have become nothing more than a meaningless check-list of things to do before graduation. And when it comes to registering for classes, the students will generally opt for the easiest classes they can find. And if the students ever find themselves in a class that will actually require significant effort from them, they will quickly drop it and find another, much easier course. [2]

Although this practice does not seem so bad to the students that they should only apply it when making their class selections. I have seen many students engage in this practice when it comes to selecting their majors as well. When it comes to substantive learning in the university, the students have become disinterested. Substantive learning is no longer the main function of the university.

We see, rather, that students are more concerned with their social experiences than they are with actual learning. Worse yet, students today are not taking out loans because they can’t afford to pay for college; rather, they take out loans in order to sustain their social lifestyle. Students view loans not as a means to paying for college, but as a means to greater freedom in their collegiate experience.[3] The social experience, not the rigors of academia, is what seems to be attracting the modern student to the university.

Having considered all these things, it should come as no surprise that today’s students are learning very little.[4] What is surprising, however, is the fact that the academic structure of our whole educational system exacerbates academic inequality among racial minorities.[5] This becomes rather ironic when we consider that today’s universities have become the ostensible champions of social diversity.

These problems, however, are scarcely noticeable because our contemporary college education system appears to be producing the results that we, as a society, demand of it. Contemporary education is looked to for its utility, nothing more. We don’t look to college as a means to learning; we look to college as a means to earning. As a result, the more substantive fields of study are being neglected, both by students and administrators. Any field of study that does not offer some sort form of utility for society quickly becomes overlooked.

And thus we see that education has been geared toward more functional outcomes. The rise of vocational education has virtually turned our universities into assembly lines that merely produce individuals who are competent in the work force. The students themselves become means to ends that today’s employers can exploit.

The more traditional form of higher education—the form that has carried with it the consensus of western civilization—is slowly being abolished in order to make room for the more utilitarian approach to education. As C.S. Lewis writes, “The old [system] dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly; the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds—making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing.”[6]

But, as the study I cited earlier shows, our students are not really learning much in the way of utility either. Both substantive and functional education are slowly being abolished. With such deficiencies in our universities, I find it strange that we refer to contemporary college education as “higher education”, as there is little in it that I can identify to be truly “higher”.

Higher education is not “higher” because it is a step above the practical skills we were taught in our secondary education; higher education is “higher” because it raises us to a higher plane of Being. Higher education serves for the purpose of giving us an idea of what the good life is and how to live it. But with the challenges facing contemporary students these days, it seems that neither the functional nor the metaphysical telos of the university can be reached. Though many might claim that you will “find yourself at college”, such a claim couldn’t be further from the truth. Today’s students are becoming disconnected from the Great Conversation that has long been the centerpiece of higher education. Today’s students have become lost in the university.

[1] Derek Bok, Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More, pp. 31-57.

[2] Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, pp. 77-81

[3] Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, pp. 81-89.

[4] Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, pp. 33-40.

[5] Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, pp. 37-47.

[6] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p. 23.

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