Enforcement of groupthink threatens higher education

There is a fundamental contradiction in treating students as consumers.

This column is the second of two parts dealing with the challenges faced by today’s higher education institutions.

After the pivot point of the flood of G.I. Bill students, higher education began to enjoy an expansion of facilities and influence matching the growing prosperity of the country. Another pivot point awaited them, though: the 1960s.

For America’s colleges and universities, the latter half of the 1960s was not a happy time. The unrest and turmoil that was roiling our nation at large was echoed on our campuses. Student protests resembled riots; school buildings were occupied, offices ransacked and general disorder reigned supreme. On some campuses, student protesters wandered around carrying rifles and wearing bandoliers of ammunition. Posters of Che Guevara adorned dorm rooms.

On some campuses the situation resembled a coup rather than a student protest. Unlike the returning G.I.s and the other scholars of the 1940s and 1950s, these students had arrived on campuses not just to study but to change things to their liking.

What the campus riots succeeded in demonstrating was that most college administrations were invertebrate. Criminal actions and rules violations committed during these student uprisings were only rarely prosecuted or punished in any way.

The next pivot point is more difficult to attach to a precise date, because it was evolutionary instead of revolutionary. It was an idea that, beginning in the 1980s, gradually took hold of college leadership and changed the way it thought about students and, as a result, changed higher education.

The idea was straightforward enough: model the school after a modern, customer-driven corporation and market college’s economic benefits to potential customers. What college administrators failed to see was the fundamental contradiction in treating students as consumers. The price for that oversight would come later.

Over time on campuses across the country the consumer-driven campus idea would include a wide range of changes, from upgrading student dormitories and food to shifting educational values like curriculum, grades, faculty evaluations, degree requirements, and academic standards.

The changes were not uniform throughout higher education. In fact, it was not unusual to find significant differences among the different major areas of study at the same college.

At the beginning customer-driven education seemed like a good idea, and it did seem to keep the lid on things at our colleges, even while they absorbed the effects of operating cost escalations and a relentless erosion of students’ preparedness for college-level academic course work.

Just as business tactics that keep a lid on things are rarely “winning strategies,” in the long run the customer-driven campus may reveal a similar flaw. The extent of current campus unrest and student demonstrations has resembled a 1960s reenactment, although the reasons behind them are quite different. The sixties student demonstrators wanted something done about external things such as the unpopular war in Vietnam and civil rights. Today’s campus demonstrations are about enforcing groupthink.

Anthony Kronman has been teaching in Yale University’s School of Law for forty years and was dean of that school for a decade. With that level of experience his perspective on higher education is extremely valuable. He has written a new book entitled, “The Assault on American Excellence,” and in it we can find some key changes on our campuses which are, or should be, worrisome.

In a telephone interview, Professor Kronman spoke of a disturbing paradox. He said, “Our student bodies are more diverse than they ever had been, yet the culture on campus is one of uniformity.”

What concerns him is not so much the content of the uniformity but its impact on the very central purpose of a university. “Before they come here, students have spent their lives thinking of themselves as members of one group or another, and when they leave, they will enter a world that is structured in much the same way. This is the one time in their lives when they are taught and encouraged to think for themselves as individuals. That is the recipe for democracy, and it is how we can best prepare them for real world.”

That real world, which we share with today’s college students, is itself changing; becoming more politically polarized. It is also characterized by a type of groupthink infused with the belief that those who hold different opinions must be shouted down and vanquished.

The full impact of these changes on higher education, and, ultimately, on our nation and its economy, has not yet been felt. It is clear, though, is that they could mean the end of colleges and universities as we knew them.

Unless college administrators step up and enforce ironclad rules of free discourse and discussion, our colleges will become factories of singular thought. For a country and an economy that from its birth has flourished under innovation and original ideas, this would be a sad fate.

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