Our Universities: Bread and Circuses

Universities have lost their mission. Education and academic performance take a back seat to reinforcing the inflated self-concept of students and their families. We have reduced admission standards, reduced standards to progress through courses, and reduced standards of performance required to graduate. Whom do we think these are helping?

“Most [people] see education only as the means by which a person is transported from one economic plane to a higher one”.

Richard Weaver, University of Chicago


Clarence Page opined in the Chicago Tribune last Sunday that today’s students at public universities don’t value critical thinking. While I believe this observation is correct, I also believe it is about five decades late.

Students have been told that getting a college diploma all but guarantees happiness, wealth and success in life. Politicians and universities have made a promise that they can’t keep. They never could have kept it, because they left out the most important part of the university value equation. It’s not receiving a college diploma that matters. It’s earning a college education that makes the difference.

Robert M. Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago, famously quipped, “I find that the three major administrative problems on a campus are sex for the students, athletics for the alumni, and parking for the faculty.” Unfortunately, I think President Hutchins nailed it.

On September 12, 2005, on the front page of the Daily Egyptian, the student newspaper at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, a reporter quoted a fellow student, writing, “’. . . it’s Chancellor Wendler’s fault,’ said [J. W.] a senior from Mount Prospect, studying marketing as he sipped a beer from a gold Coors can. ‘He’s trying to make it an educational institution, but he’s ruining the school.’”

The misplaced priorities of the administration of Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, were showcased in their treatment of biology professor, Dominique Homberger. She committed the unpardonable sin of giving students quizzes on materials they were assigned. And worse, she graded them. University administration intervened, and, as USA Today reported April 15, 2010, she was sidelined from her teaching responsibility because she was too demanding.

In Inside Higher Ed, Kevin Carman, dean of the College of Basic Sciences, reported that, “Professor Homberger is not being penalized in any way; her salary has not been decreased nor has any aspect of her appointment been changed.” But what of the fundamental betrayal of students who come to a university to receive a life-changing education…and the violated calling of a committed faculty member?

In his article from March 24, 2009, in the Christian Science Monitor, Stuart Rojstaczer, former professor of geophysics at Duke University, observed, “Our college classrooms are filled with students who do not prepare for class. Many study less than 10 hours a week – that’s less than half the hours they spent studying 40 years ago. Paradoxically, students are spending more and more money for an education that seems to deliver less and less content.” University leaders, along with the boards that set policy for them, seem more concerned with giving students a false sense of accomplishment than with giving them the education that would allow them to actually accomplish anything.

Tragically, students have been taught that regurgitating answers on a test represents real learning. This kind of human cataloguing of facts instead represents the least valuable mental skill in which one could invest one’s efforts in today’s world. Computers have made memorizable facts accessible to anyone, at any time, with just the stroke of a few keys. It is the ability to generate new knowledge that will be valuable going forward. Creativity, critical thinking, and rhetorical skill qualify a well-educated man or woman to succeed in life. Memorizing facts qualifies you to succeed on Jeopardy.

I generally hold high expectations for faculty, but when university leadership is academically corrupt, faculty cannot legitimately be held accountable for the breakdown in standards. They, too, are victims of the political interest others have in providing a watered-down public university experience.

Today, nations in Asia on the western edge of the Pacific Rim are building universities based on the mid-twentieth century model that made the United States preeminent in the world of higher education. These universities require performance. They are selective. Their faculties are given the task of creating productive citizens, not potential game-show contestants.

Low expectations and threshold standards of performance create the sad situation addressed by Mr. Page.

Students and their families must demand more from our universities, and refuse to be placated with bread and circuses. They are just cheap distractions that keep the general public from recognizing that their lot in life is not actually improving.


9 thoughts on “Our Universities: Bread and Circuses

  1. This is one of your best commentaries, WW. It succinctly states the problems that SIU faces right now. I am expecting a follow-up piece with proposed solutions to these problems.

    WW, please come back. SIU needs people like you at the helm.

  2. Another very relevant post by someone who has turned out to be a very effective “Leader of the Opposition “in the face of what SIUC and universities in general face today. How well I remember the situation when I opposed a graduate student missing a seminar to participate in the Battle of the Bands several decades ago and facing opposition and undermining from fellow faculty for upholding supposed standards of beahvior and responsibility as a result. After Thatcher ousted Edward Heath as leader of the Conservatives in the late 70s, we all looked back in nostalgia on his time in office. any of us now wonder why we chose a university career in the first place.

    P.S. Just ignore that awful, deceptive, and inaccurate film starring La Streep and read the objective historical record for yourself.

  3. I appreciate your thoughts, Dr. Wendler, and agree with you. Here’s a great blog about the high default rate of student loans that is expected to put another drain on taxpayer money. The cost of education has gone up but wages have not increased along with it. Also, with the unemployment rate high, perhaps graduates are having trouble finding work. And not having been taught critical thinking and creativity, graduates may be floundering.
    Also, thanks to TW for the comment about the new movie on Margaret Thatcher. I had my suspicions and you confirmed them. I’m getting to the point where I don’t want to watch much on TV or at the theater because of the lies and propaganda inserted into them. Even the new “Get Smart” movie had it, almost as an after thought. The propaganda was very awkwardly added thus making it very obvious.

  4. Walter, This is right on the money. It is an issue that has been sidelined by both Democrats and Republicans. Education is not a path to riches but a path to self-enrichment. For me it was a path towards learning how to be a critical thinker, starting with myself. Today critical thinking seems to be an inaccessable idea that most people can’t wrap their minds around. Thanks for this essay. It is extremely pertinant to what is happening in the USA today.

  5. I was on the First Year Experience task force a few years ago. I dug through the survey data and found that over half of first year students reported studying 10 hours a week or less. I argued that this fact be included in the final report and that any first year experience program that did not tackle this issue would be worth little. The issue was ignored.

    More recently I helped organize placement testing. The current chancellor then implemented the test for all freshmen but insisted students be able to take it at home unproctored because we have to be student friendly. The data this test generates is now meaningless.

  6. I’ve also had to re-insert a restriction to juniors and seniors clause (removed by order of the Chancellor) for one of my classes due to the problematic presence of certain freshman and sophomores, one of whom recently exhibited threatening behavior during office hours when he did not get the A he expected. When he challenged me about what I knew about the subject, I replied that I had co-written the first book in English on the subject. This did not deter him since he remained to argue with me for nearly 50 minutes. Fortunately, he has now dropped the class. Some students are not equipped for higher education critical thinking and they should not be here until they have mastered the basic skills.

  7. There’s nothing new here in Walter’s comments; professors have been voicing these concerns for years over lunches, in private office conversations, and *gasp* sometimes during faculty meetings. It’s nice to see Walter give voice to these concerns beyond the hushed halls of academia.

    The dilemma is in finding a solution. Real solutions may result in fewer students due to lack of access for everyone and the presence of classroom expectations that may lead to failure. But, then tuition income would decrease… and thus the desire to provide bread and circuses.

    Today I had a long hallway conversation with a disgruntled student who wondered whether the problems he encountered at my institution are unique – grad students teaching so many classes, lack of challenging material in many courses, and the failure to teach him real skills. I had to (unfortunately) reassure him that they are not unique. I was heartened by his sharing that the reason he has signed up for my courses for three terms in a row is because he *learned* in my courses. He said THAT is what he was paying all of this money to do – learn.

    Let’s admit and keep the students who want to learn and the faculty who want to educate. The rest can find something else to do.

  8. One of my most memorable evaluations – “I liked this class. The Professor really knew what he was talking about.”

    Another memorable one – “I hated this class. The Professor knew more about the subject than I did.”

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