It’s a tough year to graduate from college.

They are burdened with high levels of debt and enter a severely depressed job market.  Many will face sustained periods of unemployment and low wages for years. 

That’s what’s making the headlines, but it’s only part of the story.  For many, their entire educational experience was woefully inadequate for their needs, and the commencement niceties they will hear represent the worst of a false theology.

First, the education.

According to Richard Arum and Josipa Roska in the Los Angeles Times, college is very poor preparation for the reality graduates face, “with only modest academic demands that produced only limited improvement in the skills necessary to be successful in today’s knowledge-based economy.”

In a typical semester, 50% of students did not take a single course requiring more than 20 pages of writing; 32% did not have any classes that required reading more than 40 pages per week; 36% reported studying alone five or fewer hours per week.

“Not surprisingly, given such a widespread lack of academic rigor, about a third of students failed to demonstrate significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing ability during their four years of college.”

Yes, the students are partly to blame.  College is meant to be engaged; hanging out on campus isn’t enough.  Yet according to Arum and Roska, that seems to be enough for a degree.  “At many schools, students can choose from a menu of easy programs and classes that allow them to graduate without having received a rigorous college education.”  Adding to the problem is how many schools reward students with high grades for little effort.  For example, the students who reported studying alone five or fewer hours per week somehow maintained an average cumulative GPA of 3.16.

The dilemma, says Arum and Roska, is that schools have come to care more about such things as “admission yields, graduation rates, faculty research productivity, pharmaceutical patents, deluxe dormitory rooms, elaborate student centers and state-of-the-art athletic facilities complete with luxury boxes” than a quality education.  Or more succinctly, “Colleges have abandoned responsibility for shaping students’ academic development and instead have come to embrace a service model that caters to satisfying students’ expressed desires.”

And when they graduate?

Let’s turn things over to David Brooks of The New York Times, who writes that, “Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears.”  If you sample the typical commencement address, you’ll find that graduates are told to “Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself.” 

Brooks is worth quoting here at length:

“College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities.  But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to.  The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments – to a spouse, a community and calling – yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.”

“Today’s graduates are also told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams.  The implication is that they should find themselves first and then go off and live their quest.  But, of course, very few people at age 22 or 24 can take an inward journey and come out having discovered a developed self.”

“The graduates are also told to pursue happiness and joy.  But, of course, when you read a biography of someone you admire, it’s rarely the things that made them happy that compel your admiration.  It’s the things they did to court unhappiness – the things they did that were arduous and miserable, which sometimes cost them friends and aroused hatred.  It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most.”

“Finally, graduates are told to be independent-minded and to express their inner spirit.  But, of course, doing your job well often means suppressing yourself…being a good doctor often means being part of a team, following the rules of an institution, going down a regimented checklist.”

“Today’s grads enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of a life.  But, of course, as they age, they’ll discover that the tasks of a life are at the center.  Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks…The purpose in life is not to find yourself.  It’s to lose yourself.”

So pity the graduate. 

They are in debt for an education that won’t serve them in their future, and unbeknownst to them, face a future that isn’t about them being served.

James Emery White

Sources     

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, “College, too easy for its own good,” Los Angeles Times, June 2, 2011. Read online.

David Brooks, “It’s Not About You,” The New York Times, May 30, 2011. Read online.

Editor’s Note

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