And you may ask yourself, well … how did I get here?
— “Once in a Lifetime,” Talking Heads
Facebook stopped making sense for me all the way back in 2005. I was running a high school and discovered that several of my students had taken the liberty of creating a Facebook account for me, complete with photos, nicknames and comments neither clever nor clean. So it’s not true that I’ve never been on Facebook. I had a fake account for three days before I contacted Facebook to shut it down. Even then, Facebook had a dedicated communication channel for educator-victims of its business model.
Since then, tens of millions of people who once voluntarily used Facebook have come around to my perspective. Millennials and Gen Z have fallen out of love with Facebook and moved on to other platforms that are less blatant about fake accounts, stealing data and violating privacy. As Scott Shapiro of Yale Law School tweeted recently, “Facebook can't solve its privacy problem because its privacy problem is its business model.” This invited an invaluable contribution from David Friedman of Willamette Law School — my former roommate, whose first job was at Cinnabon, and who, to this day, continues to have nightmares about making frosting. Quoth Dave, “It’s like Cinnabon trying to solve its cinnamon bun problem.”
Young people have always had a knack for spotting and rebelling against insincerity. So one reason the next generation is falling out of love with college is that it’s beginning to come across as insincere. Colleges and universities continue to insist their mission is to educate leaders, which entails developing critical thinking and preparing students for a life of civic responsibility (minimally voting and serving on a jury, and hopefully a lot more than that). To the extent hiring and jobs enter into the equation, it’s about preparing students for their fifth job, not for their first job.
In the past few years, pressured by increasing evidence of underemployment of graduates and declining enrollment by career-focused students, some institutions have begun piloting efforts to better connect students to jobs (e.g., partnering with intermediaries, integrating experiential learning). But for the vast majority of four-year institutions, the core value proposition remains unchanged and fixed at a much higher altitude.
If higher education is to continue to make its stand on the hill of logic and sense — not a bad hill to stand on — it would do well to drink in the view, for it’s a view shared by all current and prospective students who care to look. Here’s what they’re seeing.
First, crystal-clear evidence that the planet is facing a climate emergency as a result of fossil fuel emissions, and that without immediate action on a broad range of fronts, life as we know it will change dramatically (and, in many geographies, end). But like a dilatory student unable to draw conclusions from a clear set of facts, few countries — and the United States in particular — have taken meaningful action.
They’re also seeing the impeachment of a president, a process that has revealed facts as undisputed as the alarming climate statistics, but where a motley crew of elected officials and their hired goons demonstrate a grasp of logic that sounds like something out of a Lewis Carroll story about the Soviet Union. My personal favorite was this recent interplay between Democratic and Republican counsel to the Intelligence Committee:
Democratic counsel: “Would you agree that Joe Biden was a leading Democratic contender to face President Trump in 2020?”
Republican counsel: “I wouldn’t agree with that.”
Dana Milbank of The Washington Post characterized this thinking (or lack thereof) as follows: “It doesn’t matter if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck. This is not a duck.” Whether the president’s actions reach the level of impeachable offenses is open for debate. But the conclusions that his supporters are drawing and failing to draw from established facts are so opposed to reason and sense that they appear to believe up is down and black is white — totalitarian thinking has become acceptable to a meaningful segment of the population.
Time was that those of us in higher education could rest easy knowing that the media would set things right. Good information would crowd out bad information, scams would be found out and reason would prevail. But it’s now clear that the combination of overtly partisan news outlets and social media is allowing Americans to choose their own news adventure and consume media that affirms what they want to believe. Media is not only not solving the problem, it’s enabling it.
To be clear, the problem isn’t misinformation. There have always been lies in national life, although the democratization of misinformation enabled by Facebook and the talking heads on Fox News has taken lies to new heights. (There are plenty of other examples on both sides of the aisle. But the big, existential ones these days are coming from Fox and friends.) What’s really new is the war on sense — an inability or willful failure to draw correct conclusions from a set of facts — which is a frontal assault on higher education’s value proposition.
What have colleges and universities done in response? On climate, many institutions have announced plans to become carbon neutral. But when it comes to defending sense, few speak out. More typical is the University of Iowa, where a faculty member’s recent suggestion that the university promote Greta Thunberg’s participation in an Iowa City climate strike on its Facebook page was met with rejection from the brilliant minds in Iowa’s communications, marketing and government relations offices: due to the university’s “political activity” guidelines, “this event does not fall within the scope of something we can promote.”
On the impeachment fracas, law faculty have testified about what constitutes impeachment, but no college or university president has mounted a defense of sense. One would think higher education leaders could be at least as courageous as Trump-appointed FBI director Chris Wray, who said, “I think it’s important for the American people to be thoughtful consumers of information … and to think about the support and predication for what they hear.”
When asked, college and university presidents will say they can’t take political positions. They’re bound by IRS 501(c)(3) rules. When pressed, they’ll say they can’t risk offending alumni and prospective donors — and particularly trustees — who may be happy denizens of the Fox News-Facebook echo chamber. This is particularly true for public institutions, where hostile state legislatures and governors can spell fiscal doom. Or they may offer platitudes along the lines of what the president of Roger Williams University said a couple of years back: “This is a time to be moderate in our responses and to endeavor to create bridges across the widening chasm between liberals and conservatives.” (Notably, none of these arguments stopped 700 college and university presidents from signing a letter in support of the DACA program.)
The existential question facing higher education in 2019 isn’t about taking a political stand, or doing anything brave or controversial besides speaking out — vocally and repeatedly — for critical thinking, reason and sense. Colleges and universities stand little chance of making sense to students when they’re continuing to base their value proposition on sense but are too blinded by their parochial interests to defend it.
I recognize that the era of the imperial university president is long gone. It’s been more than 20 years since The New Republic featured “Small Men on Campus: The Shrinking College President” on its cover. Bill Bowen, president of Princeton from 1972 to 1988, opined that “the job of the president is not to pronounce on the big public issues of today” (aside from whether to pronounce on the big public issues of today, apparently). But Bowen had more to say: “The job of the president is to pronounce on educational issues.” And this is where colleges and universities are falling flat. The current nonsense at the heart of our national life is an educational issue. It’s about defending logic and critical thinking, and needn’t involve making overt political statements.
I’m not suggesting that elite institutions in coastal or blue states undertake any effort here. That would be counterproductive, as evidenced by the attacks on Stanford and Harvard Law faculty at the impeachment hearing. I’m interested in schools that have invested as much in their football and basketball brands as their education brands.
What if the presidents of SEC, Big 10 and Big 12 universities took it upon themselves to reach out to their millions of alumni with an offer to revisit the critical thinking skills they ostensibly learned at their institutions — an applied short course on pressing national issues with examples of fantasy-land thinking from both sides? At this parlous time in our history, I cannot imagine a more valuable contribution from our colleges and universities. And while they’re at it, let’s hope the University of South Carolina reaches out to alumnus Senator Lindsey Graham, who says he won’t read the transcripts because his mind is made up and that he’s “not trying to pretend to be a fair juror.” That’s some citizen you produced.
If colleges and universities are unwilling to stand up for sense, I see three possible paths. The first is to give up the pretense of educating students and simply focus on preparing students for first jobs in growing sectors of the economy. Some are already heading down this good and honest (and ultimately faster and cheaper) road.
The second — and this is really only available to SEC, Big 10 and Big 12 schools — is to formalize their transmogrification into football and basketball sports franchises.
And the third is to do nothing and watch as millions of students — appalled by insincerity and hypocrisy — opt for alternative pathways.
In a country where sense is under attack like never before, colleges and universities need to put up or shut up. Because the evidence is in that higher education’s current deal is as sweet as a Cinnabon and as sickening as Facebook.
Happy holidays. May 2020 be a year of major progress on many fronts.
Ryan Craig is author of A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College and managing director at University Ventures.
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