How Universities Breed Dependency

Critics of today’s university education typically direct their displeasure at universities’ ideologically infused curriculum or the triumph of identity politics. But the role of a college education in fashioning an independently minded citizenry is central, and our schools are failing in this role.

While independence is difficult to define, it certainly entails self-reliance, a preference for autonomy, a capacity to choose wisely, and the ability to conquer the passions through reason and shoulder responsibility for one’s actions. Such independence links higher education to republican governance: Self-rule is possible only if citizens have acquired the self-determining habits of mind and body; a republic of subjects is unimaginable. Indeed, the term “liberal” in “liberal arts” comes from the Latin liberus, which means befitting a free man, as opposed to a slave or craftsman beholden to a master.

I submit that the university’s penchant for breeding dependency is far more pernicious than its tendency to slight Shakespeare. In fact, I prefer the word “infantilizing” to dependency: it is here, in college, that generations of Americans are “taught” to surrender liberty to the omnipotent state. It is no accident that college kids so warmly embraced Obama’s socialist vision—they already live in something resembling Sweden.

Today’s academy has become a “total institution,” a single-ticket admission theme park paid for by parents. When I tell my students that medieval universities only offered lectures, they are dumbfounded. They cannot imagine attending college bereft of school-supervised housing, pre-paid meal plans, multiple school-supplied recreational programs, spectator sports, armies of academic counselors to help write papers, and ample health professionals to cure depression or prescribe birth control devices. The university even provides self-worth, cost-free—by joining a university-funded identity group one can reaffirm one’s homosexuality or blackness. 

But the way that academic matters are treated breeds dependency most deeply. Students have discovered that pleading for top-down administrative rescues ensures survival. With an administrator’s signature, a course can be dropped after the official drop date, requirements waived, and failures expunged from the transcript. Students have also discovered that some newfound disability means extra time on exams or paid note-taking services, among other accommodations. 

My personal favorites include the following: A student who had failed my course was officially permitted to drop the course after a two-year hiatus so that she could graduate. A dean tried to rescue a student who missed the regular exam and then failed to show up for a scheduled make-up on the grounds that he “was in the process of coming out in a homophobic society.” A student was allowed to withdraw after the official drop date despite handing in an Internet purchased paper that included a $25 invoice from the “Myprofessorsucks” paper-writing service.   

Exacerbating this somebody-will-rescue-me mentality is the explosive growth of remedial education. Students receive a second, third, and even fourth chance. This irresponsibility-breeding generosity is now celebrated as “helping” students. The Gates Foundation recently announced a $100 million program to expand remedial education, and Gates is hardly alone. According to the U.S. Department of Education, about a third of students at regular colleges enroll in at least one remedial course, a figure that rises to 42 percent at public two-year colleges.

These remedial courses are totally wasteful. Jackson Toby’s The Lowering of Higher Education in America cites several studies demonstrating the futility of this “kind” intervention. But these laggards must surely master one lesson—if I don’t pay attention and catch up this time, somebody in power will provide another opportunity, and another, so why worry, just be happy.

Less visible is a shift in the culture regarding the pathway to academic success. The traditional recipe was individual diligence, burning the mid-night oil, and cramming for the test. Whatever the choice, the obligation fell squarely on the student’s shoulders. Now it is assumed that individuals cannot autonomously learn. Colleges must supply role models, mentors, learning centers, academic or mental health counselors, and all else that might be vital to learning. President Obama in his May 9, 2010, speech before 12,000 students at the largely black Hampton University called on the graduates to be “…role models for your brothers and sisters”… “mentors in your communities.”  Nothing was said of the actual process of education, which requires spending many hours reading boring books. It would seem that an entire bureaucratic village is required for a student to read and understand a book.       

Instilling dependency is especially evident with academically struggling African-Americans. If there was ever a category of students who might benefit from acquiring self-reliance, it is this one. Ironically, schools recruiting them boast about showering troubled youngsters with top-down services, virtually guaranteeing life-time dependency. There are the summer bridge programs, special courses with hand-picked instructors, transition programs, one-on-one tutoring, and special living arrangements to soften the sting of failure. These and all the rest tell the students: You cannot possibly succeed on your own—in fact, don’t even try it. It is almost as if the dependency-generating public welfare system abolished in the mid-1990s has been transferred to the academy.

That black students lack free will in pursuing education is hardening into educational theory. In 2003 the chair of the University of Georgia’s “African-American Male Initiative,” a highly touted program designed to attract more black males to college, explained why so many African-American males don’t reach the college campus. They haven’t been “mainstreamed”; that is, these innocents were pushed off college-track programs, reprimanded, disciplined, and ultimately suspended for negative behavior, which, in turn brought unemployment, even prison. Left unsaid are the issues of student volition, lack of dedication, and absence of focus. Failure was “something that happened” to these young people, not a result of personal choices.

There may be good news today, however. The current economic downturn is squeezing many colleges and parents financially. Drastically reducing the university’s bloated paternalism and the hoards of rescue-minded administrators could probably cut tuition in half. But more important than lowering tuition, such educational minimalism might reinvigorate independence among college students. Juvenile-style higher education could be transformed into education to inculcate adulthood.  The way to do this is to remove the academic props and crutches. Private gyms, even playgrounds, could replace university bureaucracies while tuition savings could be applied to personal health insurance.

None of this is especially radical. Commuter schools often lack dorms and food service, not to mention extensive programs to rescue floundering students. The school of tomorrow would be cheaper, and the students would be self-reliant in school and better citizens when they graduate. Treat higher education as marketplace consumer choice. If students prefer “Introduction to Circus Arts” (an actual course at Bloomfield College), let them pay and suffer the life-long consequences. If students demand role models and mentors, let them consult Craigslist. And as in all major purchases, when a student agrees to a course, offer a three-day cooling off period; after that, make tuition non-refundable, with withdrawals and failures going on the transcript.

With the administrative bloat gone, professors would again control their classrooms. So, if you plagiarize, justice will be swift, without appeals. Ditto for gaming the university’s elaborate disability bureaucracy—just work it out with the professor, and that’s that.

All and all, colleges should just treat students as responsible, independent adults, people who must choose wisely, whether it is their living arrangements or their academic majors. If they screw up, they screw up, and there will be no interventions from above. Treat them like adults and they will become adults. College graduates will have learned powerful lessons—one, that they have free will and two, perhaps even that it is unnecessary to rely on state rescues.