The Abandoned Generation: Rethinking Higher Education

William H. Willimon and Thomas H. Naylor
Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1995
172 pp., $25.00hc

Michael G. Becker
English, Montana State University-Bozeman

Stand at a bus stop on campus at noon, suggests a Duke professor of English, roam the libraries and dorms, and you'll hear one single sentence more than any other--"I can't believe how drunk I was last night!"

The authors, after years of teaching at Duke and Middlebury, seem to know what they're talking about when they say campus discontents today are approaching crisis proportions, that "we have abandoned the very generation of students who, having been inadequately parented and haphazardly educated, may have been least able to function for themselves."

The symptoms showing students are in trouble, they say, are everywhere: substance abuse, educational disengagement and indolence, and excessive careerism, which mask underlying serious problems--of meaninglessness, fragmentation, and absence of community.

The authors provide a lot of evidence of this disarray, but also refuse not to be hopeful, if faculty begin to rethink higher education. Their book is filled with palpable hits, personal anecdotes, study-commission statistics, newspaper and magazine vignettes, and apt quotations. The result is, if not a well organized book, one that will shock even those in denial about education and the culture at large. For example, the average student now spends more on alcohol than on books, and more undergrads die today from alcohol-related causes than earn MAs and PhDs combined! What's gone wrong in academia?

Of the first symptom, substance abuse, the evidence is almost too familiar. The question of pandemic student indolence, though, is not. "We work hard, we play hard!" is the commonly heard phrase, and there is "a widespread belief among students" that "they are hard-working as well." But this claim is not borne out by the facts. "Today's students," the authors insist, "have too much free time--not too little."

The standard course load is now only four courses at many schools, and their rigour (the reason for downloading in the first place) has declined. The reasons are many. The consumer attitude of students and parents, who indeed often pay plenty for the privilege of college, is everywhere--the U. of Oregon provost tells it like it is, "The students are telling us, 'I pay so much to go to school here--you can't give me Ds and Fs!" Further, the students themselves run in an anti-intellectual peer culture--as a Duke student says, "If you try to discuss something from class, or your reading, they'll ridicule you."

Disrespect in the classroom is also growing. Business faculty at the U. of Vermont recently passed a resolution requiring "a copy of 'Classroom Protocol' be attached to each undergrad syllabus and be distributed to all students." Finally, though the authors are mostly silent on this topic, the power of course evaluations today certainly looms behind every prof, with the attendant pressures to entertain (or not antagonize) and to please with grades. (When will faculty, by the way, say they've finally had enough of these?)

Excessive careerism also colors the college experience. Students today are eminently practical about course choice, especially those outside their majors. But the authors put an interesting twist on this subject. Why blame students for "ugly careerism" and "grim professionalism," they ask, when the same careerism motivates many of their professors? If young people learn by "confronting, observing, and imitating" older people, what is it they are learning in the crucial years of young adulthood spent with faculty? Indeed, a strong dedication to teaching and service to the university and larger community often comes at a severe career price for many faculty.

The problems of meaninglessness and fragmentation, existential and neo-religious in their implications, are endemic in our century and in its literature, art, and music. Need one expect the same from higher education? Apparently so. The authors repeatedly stress the dangers of a value-neutral education, the need for inculcating a sense of social concern, not only self-advancement. As one Michigan student notes, "you look at this bunch of courses [at graduation] and then it hits you: they don't add up to anything. It's just a bunch of courses. It doesn't mean a thing." Many faculty who were educated in the '60s, the authors perceptively observe, still don't realize we have a vastly different body of students today, young people who "are not obsessed by the search for freedom, by the need for 'breaking away.' They seem much more interested in the search for roots, stability, order, and identity."

When the societal fragmentation students have come to expect is found, even fostered, also in the university, we have seen the results. Wherein does fragmentation lie? Certainly in the schools' lack of articulated purpose and of community. The authors have some trenchant comments on these shortcomings:

One of the strongest messages [comes from admissions officers]: "The university needs to decide what it wants to be. It is very difficult for us to recruit students into an entity which appears to have no idea of who it is.... Unfortunately, we receive many conflicting signals from present students, alumni, and the administration."

The university's lack of coherence may be one factor behind the explosion of administrative budgets in the 1980s. Salaries for administrators and other non-teaching personnel are now almost half of the amount of college budgets spent on actual teaching.

Undergraduate education and state-of-the-art research are two different businesses. Does it make any sense to try to combine them under one umbrella? The skills for successful research grantsmanship are not the same skills required to be a good undergraduate teacher. Why do so many academics pretend otherwise? Again, a Duke senior complains, "Students are here only as a necessary evil--to finance faculty research!"

We believe there are far too many universities in the United States. Some are so tiny it is difficult to take their self-proclaimed university status seriously. Others are so large that they are fundamentally unmanageable.

Academic largeness and indirection perforce create the problem of the profound lack of a sustainable learning community. The authors repeatedly lament the "ill-conceived, ill-planned hodgepodge of dehumanized dormitories, military-style food service, and mass-production classroom buildings all under the umbrella of a live-and-let-live philosophy where students and faculty go their own way." It is scarcely much better for many faculty. Jane Thompkins, the distinguished literary scholar at Duke, is quoted at length on this point of community: "Loneliness," she says, "is a major factor of life for many university faculty." In a research school, one must "move up the ladder--receive more money, more recognition, a lighter teaching load.... People's energy naturally goes into their publications and not toward the institution or each other." The authors conclude that it's time for faculty to spend some quality time thinking about what is the best possible way to live in a learning community--and then "unashamedly ask students to conform to the best way!"

As someone once said, Tocqueville no doubt, Americans love change, and when they change they always change all at once and in the same direction. Solutions to our crisis in higher education, if once acknowledged, will probably also come with a rush. The authors propose a number of them. One demands painful restructuring (before "politicians and mere market pressures hack our schools to pieces, bit by bit"); another requires a new emphasis on teaching; a third, a curriculum "counterrevolutuion."

The authors propose decoupling undergraduate education from the largest universities (optimum size=5K), downsizing as corporations have done (too many of our schools "resemble General Motors of the 50s"), and creating residential colleges in existing and new colleges. The future university would then consist only of "professional schools, graduate-degree granting programs, high-level research institutions, adult ed, and professional outreach services." This would provide funding now siphoned off by "expensive and glamorous" grad and professional programs--many of which continue to produce PhDs in oversupplied fields, a practice which "borders on the immoral." It would also restore "the dignity and focus" of undergraduate education.

Faculty teaching in the projected residential colleges would have "renewable ten-year contracts, where the terms of renewal assume the professor maintains some minimum level of competence in the classroom." All faculty would teach, many at least three courses. In the same vein the authors quote with approval a study that shows schools are skewed in favor of the input side of learning--publications, credentials, library collections, etc.--but have spent little effort or money in assessment, in measuring student achievement. Higher education in the next century must "assess the knowledge, skills, and competencies of their students."

Perhaps peddling a college degree will be a lot easier when it has regained value, in a new seller's market?

Finally, although tinkering with the curriculum, a time-honored way of not dealing with problems in higher ed, is no substitute for inducting students into a learning community, or for "close attention to the character of the faculty" (who should not be interested in producing only "research clones of themselves"), the curriculum program presented here bears close reading. They suggest, above all, reducing the great freedom students have in choosing courses. Then they would require a course in English comp and a proficiency exam before being allowed to enter sophomore year; an intro course in calculus or statistics/data analysis; the usual core courses; four courses in a foreign language; one year of basic science; two social science courses, especially in economics; and, finally, one course each semester over four years in physical ed! A senior-year thesis would round out the curriculum.

There is much in this book that is provocative and idealistic (I have not yet mentioned their excellent idea of downsizing or eliminating college sports!). The authors are two worried faculty who feel intensely it is we who must begin the changes. Throughout I often thought "nice but hopeless," or "I know what they're trying to do but too late." But if places like Duke, Princeton, Middlebury, and numerous others mentioned in this book can renew themselves, why not American higher education in general? As Margaret Mead has said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

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