Moral bankruptcy is undermining higher education

I had my first taste of the University of Georgia in 1995 when I participated in a classical guitar competition at the flagship in Athens. Instructors in the university’s music department judged me and a handful of other guitar players from around the state on our technique and performance (in case you’re wondering, I ended up winning that year).

Just a boy at the time, I remember being awed by the campus and what I viewed as prodigious buildings where really smart people went to study really important things in a really serious academic environment. Looking back, I was right about one thing—the campus does have prodigious buildings.

In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time on the Athens campus (my girlfriend is conducting her postdoctoral research there) and have absorbed its culture. As a result, my previously reverential view of UGA has morphed into a cynical one.

As this Chronicle of Higher Education piece shows in painstaking detail, Athens is the quintessential “college town,” a place where partying is a professional endeavor. Underground fake ID syndicates? Check. Ever-flowing cheap beer and mixed drinks at bar after bar after bar after bar? Check. The religion of SEC football and its concomitant tailgating, which is treated like a high class social affair rather than the glorified redneck debauchery that it is? Check. Vacuous sorority girls and frat boys? Check.

My profile of the average UGA student—which jibes with most of the depictions in the article above—is not a flattering one. The booze-addled matriculants who populate the otherwise quaint town of Athens seem to have no real interest in doing challenging work. Spending every penny on their prepaid credit cards at nearby bars (thanks, Mom and Dad), finding every shortcut to make it through their coursework (and then whining about the slightest encroachment of academic rigor), and dutifully cheering on the football team—which is worshipped on campus—appear to be more pressing matters.

Yes, there are always exceptions, and yes, there are no doubt bright students doing really good work on the campus. But I’m describing what, to me at least, seems pervasive. I’m describing a chunk of the student population comprised of the lowest common denominator, of students too smug and incurious to ever enhance their university’s educational atmosphere, and who do a big disservice to their more earnest classmates. They’re shuffled through the system in four or five or six years, having gleaned nothing but a few hazy memories and a framed piece of paper. It might be hyperbolic to say that such students and their ilk are now the majority at American colleges and universities, but I doubt it.

It’s easy to laugh at the many viral YouTube videos of college students unable to answer basic questions about American history, or showing no familiarity with elementary school knowledge. It’s easy to dismiss the out-of-control hedonism on many campuses as mere youthful decadence, an oafish rite of passage.

But there’s something much darker at play, a dreadful malady that is rotting away all that is good about higher education. It involves moral bankruptcy on the part of students and passive acceptance of such bankruptcy on the part of universities.

Before the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s and the landmark 1961 federal court case Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education, which granted due process rights to students at public universities, the doctrine of in loco parentis (Latin for “in the place of the parent”) was prevalent in higher education. Colleges and universities regulated students’ private affairs by restricting some forms of speech, aggressively limiting drinking and drug use, and even implementing curfews. Students who didn’t comply were shown the door.

In 2011, 56 percent of respondents to a Pope Center survey answered “yes” to the question “Should universities return to traditional rules on student behavior—such as implementing same-sex and alcohol-free dorms?” While that’s a perfectly natural gut reaction to campus degeneracy, I think the resurrection of in loco parentis would be a step in the wrong direction.

Students are infantilized enough. Institutions of higher learning should be places where students are intellectually and ethically prepared for adult life and professional careers, not sequestered from one vice or another, or sheltered from society’s more nefarious elements. With that said, however, there is a role for colleges and universities to play in terms of discouraging the moral bankruptcy which now seems so widespread on campuses.

By adopting a more selective admissions process and strengthening academic rigor, schools would help to weed out at least some of the aforementioned problems, and would send a signal to applicants (including the parents and  K-12 schools molding them): we demand more here.

In a recent article titled “If Students Have Time to Get Drunk, Colleges Aren’t Doing Their Job,” the New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey writes that “the most effective alcohol abuse prevention policy is to be a better college: a place where students are continually challenged, provoked, and engaged by the difficult work of learning.”

He points to Hollywood as one culprit, as it sometimes portrays hedonism in a lighthearted manner without also showing its ugly side effects. Greek organizations and the universities that turn a blind eye to their misdeeds are guilty in Carey’s view, too. “Organizations that are a danger to students should be permanently shut down,” he writes.

I agree with most of Carey’s comments. But there’s another problem unrelated to alcoholic excesses that deserves attention.

Mark Twain once wrote that the “offspring of riches” is “pride, vanity, ostentation, arrogance, [and] tyranny.” Unfortunately, many of today’s college students have become so accustomed to the “riches” of Western standards of living that they lack respect for higher education. College is just another item on the list that must be checked off before calling oneself a grown-up.

Pushed to go to college at an early age, many students fall into an artificial kind of competitiveness that encourages shortcuts to academic success. In high school, they study for a smorgasbord of standardized tests, they sometimes cheat, their helicopter parents coddle them, and they’re jammed through the educational system without having learned to love learning for learning’s sake. By the time they get to college, they’re not interested in academics, they’re interested in perfunctorily obtaining their diplomas and partying their way to graduation.  

It’s a mindless rat race.

That kind of environment can lead to severe moral decay. I’m reminded of a time as an undergraduate when everyone in my introductory biology course cheated on an in-class quiz while the professor was out of the room. When I confronted the professor about that, she feigned disapproval, but did nothing to stop it in the future. It happened again, several timesa sign of students’ general indifference to baseline ethical standards. Yet, on paper, every one of those cheating students was “college ready.”

Clearly, there are factors beyond SAT scores and high school GPAs that colleges should consider during the admissions process.

Whether it’s alcohol abuse or snobbish entitlement or academic incuriousity or lack of personal integrity, many of the problems displayed by college students are steeped in moral bankruptcy. But will colleges do anything to stem the tide? Will they demand more from applicants and more from campus stakeholders? Or will higher education’s dark side take control of the Ivory Tower?