Storrs, Connecticut — My college days were nearly a lifetime ago, but even now, on a bright September day when there’s a hint of autumn in the air, I feel like I should be back on campus.
This year, I followed that impulse, heading back to two schools where I spent time in my restless youth. I wanted to see what’s up with college these days. To hear some people talk, things are a mess. Liberal professors are indoctrinating students with their radical agendas; “snowflake” students are cowering in safe spaces to escape gender-insensitive pronouns; free speech is under assault, at least free speech by prominent conservatives.
A lot of people are buying that vision of campus life. A Pew Research survey released this summer found that 58 percent of Republicans believe that colleges and universities “have a negative impact” on the country. That’s up from 37 percent just two years ago. Support among Democrats has held steady, with 72 percent saying colleges and universities have a positive impact.
This is what happens when you turn higher education into a political football.
I didn’t see a destructive force when I got back to University of Connecticut 40-something years after I left. Nor did I find it at Yale, the Ivy League bastion an hour south. I saw young people doing their best to make themselves, and the world they will inherit, better.
UConn has the best women’s basketball program on the planet, and the ag school has a creamery that by itself is worth a visit to Storrs. Otherwise it’s a typical, sprawling state university, with multiple missions. I found lots of new buildings – some parts of campus were unrecognizable – but most of the old ones are still there, reeking of memories. The students, though, look much the same as I remember, only with more diversity and more tattoos. They are nearly identical to earlier generations of students in the attribute that matters most: their age.
People who fret about what’s happening on campus today need to remember that universities are communities where adolescents outnumber the adults. By nature, adolescents are prone to reckless behavior, ideological extremism, identity confusion and binge drinking. I bet half of all campus controversies — whether it’s a hazing outrage or a political correctness run amok — start with the excess and bad judgment that comes with youth.
When commentators playing to partisan crowds get all worked up over crazy words coming from the mouths of 20-year-olds, we shouldn’t assume the sound-byte is either important or representative of anyone but the speaker. We ought to support young people and listen to them, but not necessarily take everything they say seriously.
There are more than 23,600 undergrads at UConn, and none of them are there to play politics. They are studying accounting, and engineering and pre-med, making themselves into teachers, business managers, cops and chemists. Don’t tell them what they are doing is having a negative effect on the country.
The undergrads at Yale may have more money and higher SAT scores, but they are just as capable of immaturity. They, too, are here to learn, and they take their responsibility to the future – their own and their country’s – seriously.
The college-as-liberal-indoctrination myth is an insult to both the students and their professors. Students are being exposed to new ideas of all kinds and learning how to think about them. That’s what education is all about.
It’s also an insult to conservative students and professors. Consider the 31,000 students at Bible colleges. Are they being “indoctrinated” by their conservative-leaning professors? Besides, politics is a tiny part of the curriculum, and who cares who the physics professor voted for?
There are problems in American higher education that deserve broad public debate. It’s much too expensive. Students graduate deep in debt, and too many never graduate at all. High schools put most everyone on a college track, while jobs in the skilled trades go unfilled. Young people don’t come out of college with the job-keeping skills they need to succeed.
Too many kids go to college because it’s what happens after high school. They spend more time worrying about getting into college than thinking about what they want to learn. When they get to college, they find a party culture that wastes their time, distorts their priorities and sometimes kills.
We need different higher education models, and a more thoughtful approach to picking the model that best suits each high school graduate. If people off-campus want to debate what’s happening on-campus, there’s plenty of substance to talk about.
But let’s not make higher education a casualty of partisan politics or media-fueled culture wars. It’s just too important.
Correction: In a recent column I understated Montana’s population. Current estimates rank it as more populous than five states.