After being maligned last spring by the noted faultfinder William Bennett for allegedly having too many stereos, cars and beach vacations, college students can now come out of hiding. They have a friend -- an understanding and true one -- in Frank Newman.
He is the president of the Education Commission of the States who writes in a report to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching that higher education "far too often stifles the inherent creativity of the student. Students too frequently sit passively in class, take safe courses, are discouraged from challenging the ideas presented to them."
The other evening at American University, where I am teaching 230 students in two peace-studies classes, I asked part of the group to write their comments on Newman's assessments. If we want the young to be creative, why don't we go to them for their views?
My students were grateful to do what Newman believes they are usually squashed for: challenging the ideas of educators like him. Several seniors thought Newman was beating his fists against the wrong ivy wall. Colleges reflect the attitude of the nation, one wrote: "A highly capitalistic society like ours needs and wants students to be technically refined and limited. Students are sharpened like a pencil to fit in a small hole in the work force. A student who learns about everything (we'll call him a Renaissance man) is thought to be useless. His mind is not a well-sharpened pencil but an upside-down umbrella -- open to many ideas, interests and thoughts."
Many of the papers, especially those from the opened umbrellas, discussed the double pressures of getting by financially and getting ahead academically. Newman speaks of the 3.5 million students who borrowed an average of $2,525 in 1983 under the guaranteed loan program. In the past, it was medical students who had scare stories about owing pots of money upon graduation. Now it is common for college seniors to be in debt for $10,000 or $15,000.
With money on the minds of the young perhaps more than the love of learning, the traditional function of a university is under subtle attack. Besieged students know it. Fears about debts lead to worries about getting the high-salaried job to pay them off. The way to get the good job is to get good grades, which means, as Newman wrote, taking safe courses and passivity. Leave creativity for the English majors, who want to live poor anyway.
For all of the excellence in his report, Newman has nothing to say about the necessity for the elimination of grades. It is too radical an idea for him, even though grades are always on the minds of students. A senior in my class wrote: "An 'A' is what one is programmed to strive for in class. It is success, whereas, 'C' is near incompetence. It is a ridiculous notion to believe that one who receives an 'A' has absorbed more from class than one who has received a grade of 'C.' "
Another said: "With college being so expensive, and most scholarships depending on high marks, one can easily see why a student would find an easy, less research-oriented class more desirous. Thinking becomes less important and creativity gets overshadowed by the desire for good grades: I don't blame the student who owes the banks $16,000 and must work to get through school and keep up a 3.5 average to keep the scholarship."
Newman worries that students are either losing their sense of public service or may never have had it to begin with. He calls for public service fellowships and programs that provide student aid in return for community service. Much of this would involve federal legislation, which is unlikely to pass when Congress has all it can do to protect student loan programs. A spirit of community service is evoked best by those professors who speak openly in their classes about idealism and altruism. Children will pick it up and go into the community on their own, knowing that the rewards in personal satisfaction are large.
An inspiration-giving professor like that must have influenced one of my students. She wrote: "I disagree with the Carnegie report that I will graduate from college with too little sense of civic responsibility. I participate in many service projects that I'm not required to or pressured into, and I see many of my classmates participating, and it's not all the same faces."
The nation's 3,200 colleges and universities have our children for only a brief period. Some of the schools and many of the teachers excel at nurturing the minds and souls of the young, despite the curses of loans, debts and grading systems. At some point, Frank Newman should take the time to report on the methods of those schools that are keeping faith with creativity and service. They deserve to be studied.