Our Universities: I’m Ashamed

Universities, one hopes inadvertently, are training generations to avoid responsibility for their actions. This is shameful. Such training breeds an expectation of entitlement that undermines initiative, industry, courage, self-reliance, community, and discourages students from exercising one of the greatest benefits of higher education: the ability to take enlightened action.

“Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.”

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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“We should be ashamed,” Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy, told a roomful of college counselors and admissions staff this past October, according to a New York Times piece, Discontent over the State of College Admissions, voicing his concern over a perceived overemphasis on merit-based aid in student support.

Ashamed? Because of an over-emphasis on rewarding performance and potential? These gentlemen seem to believe that the problem with our university systems is that we are placing too much emphasis on making sure we educate those students who are most up to the task.

Baloney.

I am ashamed too. Ashamed that, if there’s one lesson being taught at our nation’s universities with great success, not to mention significant, deleterious short- and long-term social repercussions, it’s how to avoid responsibility.

Students go to class, frequently having paid inexcusably high tuition and fees, put forth lackluster effort toward their work, and then expect to receive a grade of “A”. All too often, members of the university community skirt their responsibility to give the student the benefit of an honest evaluation of their work, an evaluation that would give them the opportunity to improve their future performance. Instead they buy into the student’s argument that, since the student worked hard (by the student’s definition of “hard”) and paid their tuition and fees, they deserve an “A” regardless of whether their work is of exceptional, or, often, even adequate quality.

As a member of the university community, for this I’m ashamed.

Where is the personal responsibility for the students to earn a grade based on the quality of the work they produce, the tests they take, and the papers they write? We haven’t taught them that an honest critique of our ability is a gift that allows us to become more than we currently are. We haven’t taught them that a stellar record on paper that can’t be backed up in the field can ruin a reputation beyond repair.

For this, I’m ashamed.

I’m in favor of every person exploring whatever areas interest them that their time and resources allow them to pursue. But our universities and elected officials have convinced students, parents, and many employers that a university diploma proves the value of a person. That’s wrong. There is far more value in any job that’s well done, whether it’s white-collar, blue-collar, professional or trade, than there is a degree that doesn’t represent some useful competence. Too often, students graduate with degrees that present them with limited opportunities, either because they’ve misunderstood the job prospects in their field of study, misunderstood whether their abilities were a good fit for its market, or been misinformed about the level of effort needed to perform at a professional level.

For this, I’m ashamed.

Student loans, theoretically backed by the earning potential an increased skill set would have created, can’t be paid back when those skills are either insufficiently developed for the market to use, or are in a field where there aren’t jobs available. If the loan, in which the elected officials, employers, banks, students and their parents were all complicit to some degree, is forgiven because it’s “too great a burden too bear,” an unfortunate lesson is taught: Bad choices have no consequences. None of the participants learn to make better decisions because there are no repercussions: not to the schools, the banks, the students or the state house. The damage is visited, instead, on bystanders (or, as they’re sometimes called: taxpayers.)

For this, I’m ashamed.

Thacker’s concern is misplaced. The encouragement and support that universities give to students with the understanding, the ability and the dedication to succeed in their chosen field is not our failing.

We have a responsibility to teach our students how the world works, what it rewards and how it responds to efforts that don’t yield results, despite our best intentions. It’s when we fail that mission that we should be ashamed.

Very ashamed.

7 thoughts on “Our Universities: I’m Ashamed

  1. Thank you for the powerful commentary Walter. We are hiring some talented graduates in this day and age but there are far too many who are incapable of the challenges that successful businesses demand of them. I am proud to have had you as a professor and am proud of your outspoken concerns over our nation’s academic institutions.

  2. Walter,

    One never knows the full story on some tenure issues–but this one seems to signal even more of a sense of self-entitlement.

    Bill

    Socratic Backfire? – insidehighered.com

    Some students didn’t take well to Steven Maranville’s teaching style at Utah Valley University. They complained that in the professor’s “capstone” business course, he asked them questions in class even when they didn’t raise…

  3. I have always felt Mr. Wendler was treated poorly by SIU. This is a very smart man who should be IN CHARGE!!!.This article couldn’t have said it any better. I hope some one is listening.

  4. If more teachers thought like you and acted accordingly, I believe that more students would truly benefit from their college experience.

  5. Thanks, Walter. I still believe that there are a majority of committed faculty members who agree with you. We need administrators to lead and articulate the path to excellence in the educational communities.

  6. As a fellow professor, scholar, and teacher, I concur. Many of my colleagues are surprised that my courses enroll so well given that I have one of the hardest grade distributions and teach material at a very high level. I get a lot of repeat students with some taking all five of the undergraduate courses that I teach. Why? Because some of our students *long* to be challenged and to acquire skills that will give them an edge. Those students are what make me proud to be a professor and help me to look forward to my work day.

    It is nice to know that I have colleagues like you, Walter, who are also striving for quality in education. Unfortunately, our attitudes are not universal.

  7. Touche’ Walter. Very well defined/discussed and I am ashamed as well. As you have pointed out and which I strive to deliver as a new tenure-track faculty here at SIUC, is the challenge and development in the understanding of accountability, responsibility, and authority for our students and applying these “rules” to life and professionalism.

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