Posted in Quick Hits on June 26th, 2012 by Ed

I want to continue to direct your attention to Monday's post and discussion because, for obvious reasons, the radical makeover of higher education is of great importance to me. However, the new issue of the New Yorker has what we might consider a companion piece. Of course higher education's problems run deeper than political appointments and administrative dick-measuring contests; as I've written so many times before (hit the "teaching" tag) the attitudes and expectations of the students are a problem as well. Particularly vexing is this new generation of students who are for all intents and purposes helpless, or led to believe that they are. In "Why Are American Kids So Spoiled?", Elizabeth Kolbert takes a shot at uncovering the roots of the problem.

The discussion, while extremely interesting and more than worth your time, focuses largely on early childhood and parenting. Yet one passage speaks directly to the role of universities and the commodification of education in shaping the way children are raised:

Hara Estroff Marano argues that college rankings are ultimately to blame for what ails the American family. Her argument runs more or less as follows: High-powered parents worry that the economic opportunities for their children are shrinking. They see a degree from a top-tier school as one of the few ways to give their kids a jump on the competition. In order to secure this advantage, they will do pretty much anything, which means not just taking care of all the cooking and cleaning but also helping their children with math homework, hiring them S.A.T. tutors, and, if necessary, suing their high school.

When test scores become the panacea for admitting students to college and sorting them out afterward, parents who have every reason to fear for their children's economic future attempt to eliminate all challenges, distractions, and responsibilities except academics from their lives. I'll take care of everything for you; you just be sure to study a lot. Oh, you don't know how to study? Here's a tutor and three Kaplan courses. In this way, the author argues, parents unintentionally send kids to college who are immature, lazy, and unprepared to do any work (or take care of themselves on the most basic level) even if the urge to do so strikes.

It's not a definitive argument, and I'd like to see more from Marano's book before passing judgment. But it passes the smell test, based on my experiences with undergraduates.