In his announcement this week that Catholic University would return to single-sex dorms, John Garvey, the university’s president, said the move was an effort to put the kibosh on the culture of hook-ups and binge drinking. “Students will be better off,” Garvey wrote, when they no longer have to face such “distractions.”
Does he think that learning is going on in the classroom?
If college were a place where you were supposed to acquire information you did not come in with, it would not offer courses such as “Kinky Things That Came to Einstein in Dreams,” “Elephants Are Pretty Weird” and “The Magic of Numbers.” (One of these is not a joke. See Harvard’s course catalogue.) Classes would meet on Fridays. And students wouldn’t be able to pick just anything from a smorgasbord of oddly specific bits of information but might be required to cover some basics of civics and general knowledge.
But colleges know that students already know all they need. After all, 12 percent of high school seniors scored “proficient” in history on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That sounds pretty good to me! But maybe that is because only 26 percent of me scored proficient in Math.
Besides, by the time you get to college you are too tired to study. Since age 4, you have been taking Baby’s College Prep Courses and listening to tapes of Things Mozart Was Already Capable Of Doing At Your Age. You trekked to high school with a bag full of weighty tomes, cultivated all kinds of extracurricular expertise, and spent a decade pretending to be interested in Obscure Slavic Studies so that That Elite University would welcome you with open arms. So you are, frankly, exhausted, and you would like a beer now.
You also know better than to think you will learn anything in the classroom -- unless you’re in the hard sciences, or the hard maths, or any other discipline with “hard” in its title. That’s not the point. You are supposed to be learning things like What Gender You Are Truly Attracted To and How to Construct a Beer Pong Table Out of a Live Bear.
Students used to do this for vague social reasons, like protesting The Man and fighting The System. Now we do it because - well, why not? All that SAT prep had to have something in it for us!
No wonder three-year degrees are out of vogue. Leave after three years? Some people can’t even leave after eight!
Maybe there is something to be said for hard work and self-abnegation. But I can’t think of what it is.
In the grand scheme of things, understanding how to tap a keg will endear you to more people than knowing who was really to blame for the Franco-Prussian War.
Consider, if college students worked at acquiring knowledge, how obnoxious they would be at cocktail parties. They would say things like, “I believe it was Francis Bacon who once noted that ‘Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.’ “ Instead, they do none of those three things, with one-third not taking a single course that requires more than 40 pages of reading a week.
So, these changes worry me. Eliminate hook-ups? Hook-up culture teaches valuable lessons, like how to walk across campus with dignity at 8 in the morning while wearing a sexy duck costume.
“I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, tapestry and Porcelain,” wrote John Adams. Hear, hear! And you studied painting, tapestry and porcelain so your children could figure out the subtle art of how to drink beer from a hat.
Garvey seems to be laboring under the misconception that this is a “distraction” and that we ought to be studying. Doesn’t he see? College is supposed to be where they keep the cakes and ale.
Sure, 36 percent of college students showed no improvement over two years on measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing. But what sort of moron thinks those skills are applicable to modern life? We don’t write; we tweet. We don’t think critically; that sounds mean! Reasoning? That’s for people who don’t want to make it on cable. And for everything else, there’s Google. College students are quite wisely focusing on the skills they’ll need in the workplace, like staying awake and smiling vaguely but pleasantly when hung over.
Yes, employers are complaining that graduates lack basic skills. And we Americans remain steadily at the middle of the academic pack, while other nations are gaining. But see if they can do a keg stand!
A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. I assume in larger quantities it’s absolutely lethal.