by Reed Fawell III
Higher education is corrupt. Each year the rot degrades the system’s ability to educate our kids. The problem is not criminal activity, malfeasance, or bad intentions. Rather, the system is losing focus on its core mission.
Last month I suggested on this blog that higher education needs a total overhaul, especially in elite undergraduate institutions. Here, and in posts to follow, I will explain why this overhaul is critically needed.
My intent is not to blame particular individuals, groups or institutions, but to highlight how a once-great system of elite higher education is failing its students and undermining all that it touches. The ramifications extend to students, parents, faculty and administrators, as well as the outside interests (public and private) that feed off the system or unduly influence it.
Even as the sector grows into a massive commercial enterprise accounting for an ever-larger share of the nation’s economy, the capacity of higher ed to fulfill its historic mission of educating undergraduate students is crumbling. Nowhere is the problem more evident than at the nation’s foremost colleges and universities once led the world in teaching liberal arts, sciences and humanities upon which Western Civilization depends.
While the threat is real, there are heroes in this story. A dwindling minority of students, faculty, and administrators fight the debilitating system every day. Too often, though, they labor at great cost to themselves and their careers. Their battles usually take place outside the public view. Yet more of them are going public, describing their struggles in books and articles. Even a few institutions are fighting the tide by focusing sharply on the mission to educating their students in an efficient, cost-effective way.
But we are losing ground overall. All too often the career and work of Col. John Boyd, a preeminent military strategist, theorist and educator in last decades of the 20th century, typifies how today’s real “educators” wage lonely, uphill battles. Boyd wrote how those caught in dysfunctional institutions are forced to do “counter productive work” instead of the real and transformation work. Higher education needs far more John Boyds. (See Robert Coram’s biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.)
Each year teaching and learning get harder. Leadership failures and destructive cultural forces are overwhelming undergraduate programs at an alarming pace. Higher education inflicts pervasive, long-lasting, and often devastating harm upon many of its undergraduate students. As the corruption spreads into families and communities, it poisons everyone’s future. Elite institutions, which educate a disproportionate share of the nation’s leaders, can most do the most harm.
William Deresiewicz’s 2014 book, “Excellent Sheep, the Mis-education of the American Elite,” tells of “toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation” experienced by large and growing numbers of undergraduates at elite schools. He describes how undergraduates are too often the left overs from “stressed out, over-pressured high school student(s)” that elite institutions now demand.
The American Psychological Association summarized a recent survey under the headline The Crisis on Campus: “Nearly half of college students reported feelings of hopelessness while almost a third spoke of feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function during the past twelve months.”
Excellent Sheep also reports that college counseling services are being overwhelmed. Nearly of half of students seeking help now suffer from “severe psychological problems,” triple the number two decades ago. A Stanford Provost who convened a task force on student mental health in 2006 wrote: “Increasingly we are seeing students struggling with mental health concerns ranging from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-mutilation behaviors, schizophrenia and suicidal behaviors.” A college president wrote: “We appear to have an epidemic of depression among young people.”
Many pathologies arise in high school among students striving to meet the admission requirements of elite colleges. Many are overwhelmed when they get there. Many never recover. Said one student: “For many students, rising to the top means being consumed by the system.”
Why? Why is the mental, emotional, and physical health of so many of America’s elite students in apparent collapse? Why is this phenomenon so under-reported?
Professors and instructors tasked to mentor these undergraduates in college often suffer the same maladies as their students. Evidence mounts that today’s higher education system inflicts emotional, professional and financial harm, and related injustices, upon the tenured and non-tenured faculty teaching at America’s most prestigious institutions. Here, too, we find toxic levels of fear, anxiety, depression, emptiness, aimlessness and isolation, particularly among those most vulnerable: the graduate and post graduate instructors, non-tenured track professors, and younger professors seeking tenure.
When those who do the bulk of teaching and mentoring of undergraduate students experience undue stress, dysfunction, obsessive-compulsive behavior, hysteria, and depression, something is terribly wrong. The next few articles will delve into the central drivers of this dysfunction within America’s elite educational system and how they combine with cultural forces to threaten to collapse not only our elite undergraduate education but our society that depends on well educated citizens.