We Must Reverse the Infantilization of Higher Education

Last week, I experienced the infantilization of the campus for the first time.

I run the Center for Free Enterprise at Florida Southern College, where we emphasize that a realistic assessment of the world shows that free enterprise is the best way to help ordinary people. We had scheduled the well-known Manhattan Institute economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth to speak on “The Myth of the Wage Gap.” Because of that, a student targeted me for a dressing-down in my office.

Her main thrust was that the wage gap between men and women could not possibly be a myth. Everyone knows about this wage difference, she declared, so how could Diana Furchtgott-Roth call it a myth?

I encourage social inquiry based on evidence and so explained to the student how modern statistical methods can control for various influences that explain wage differences, such as education levels, area of work, and age. Furchtgott-Roth’s argument was that if you apply those controls, the “wage gap” disappears.

Our discussion then continued to fashion models who are paid very well, but, declared the student, exploited. After I explained why that conclusion was doubtful, she burst into tears and fled. It seemed her tears were a reaction to facing up to economic inquiry in an area of cherished belief.

Why does such infantile behavior surface in colleges populated by intelligent young adults?

To those of us who grew up in the 1960s, it’s strange. Students back then relished the logical articulation of heterodox ideas, but modern students, like the one mentioned above, often exhibit trauma in the face of intellectual challenge and expect administrators to protect them from conflicting ideas.

I think there’s an economic explanation for that change. We are looking at a shift in the risk preferences of the academy, especially its students.

Economists analyzing risk have long understood that most individuals prefer avoiding a loss compared with taking a gamble to achieve a gain. If faced with an equal chance of gaining or losing $1,000 (actuarially worth $500), most individuals are risk averse and prefer to accept a lesser sum (e.g., $400) to avoid the gamble.

An implication of risk aversion is that people will fight to hold on to known levels of wealth, income, and other assets—including intellectual comfort levels. This was ever so, but students are fighting harder than ever to avoid risk of losing faith in their ideas. I think there are several reasons why this has happened.

First, higher education has greatly expanded, enrolling many students with lower ability levels compared with those of 50 years ago. In psychological research, lower intelligence is statistically associated with greater risk aversion. Therefore, one explanation for the change in risk aversion is simply that the student body has become, on average, less bright.

Second, many college administrators now have more of a commercial focus than those of the past, whose sympathies were usually close to the traditional academy. The new type has a misguided sense of the academy as really being a business (rather than simply needing to be businesslike), which leads to a customer focus that’s appropriate to, say, the marketing of vacations, but not to the provision of education.

In the new model of administration, there are people who don’t understand why we need all this intellectual controversy stuff. They’d rather just keep the kids happy.

Recent research from Sweden suggests that college administrators have unusually high aversion to risk. For them, any significant risk of controversy on campus with associated conflict is best avoided. Their attitude communicates in specific and general ways to the student body. A climate of avoiding intellectual conflict builds up over time. Controversial speakers become equally undesirable to students and administrators.

Another reason why many students cling to certain ideas is social media, which is increasingly a mechanism for extreme peer-group pressure if not outright bullying. Thus, the psychological loss attached to changing your ideas or in any way deviating from dominant views can be high. Social media also seems to increase risk aversion in relation to exploring ideas.

That observation rings true among growing revelations that social media networks edit information streams to align them with the exhibited preferences of users. Social media is thus an efficient medium for reinforcing belief systems via peer-group pressure. It is risky for individuals to change beliefs that have been shaped by “likes” in a public forum and the risk of ostracism through being “unfriended” is painfully high for many students.

Perhaps there are other factors contributing to the infantilization of the campus. The big question is what, if anything, we can do about it. Let me advance two ideas.  

First, the inappropriate emphasis on the university as a business needs to end. When administrators look upon students simply as paying customers who must be kept happy, they lose sight of the very point of higher education, where struggling for knowledge and self-improvement is a complex undertaking. Losing enrolled students from time to time is the price of keeping academic standards high. That loss includes the possibility that some might leave because they feel “unsafe” with controversial ideas swirling around.

Second, school officials should become proactive in heading off infantilization. Administrators themselves must understand the importance of controversy and uncomfortable debate in the academy, then provide that message to the student body. It isn’t enough to say that criminal damage and intimidation will not be allowed on campus. It is vital to draw students out of the sheltering approach of their earlier schooling and engage them into the world of clashing ideas where theirs will often be judged. It isn’t personal. Don’t react like a child.

Educational leaders must explain to students that civilization depends on freedom of speech. We need everyone’s willingness to listen to and rationally respond to different views. Leaders must take every opportunity to reinforce the message that thinking based on evidence and controversy is the normal currency of academic training. Shouting down speakers is not.

That message will support wider tolerance and intellectual curiosity, and help students to take an adult approach to the world. If officials at Middlebury College had robustly encouraged this more adult approach, then their students wouldn’t have shamefully shouted down Charles Murray when he tried to speak there. My college is not remotely like Middlebury, but all colleges are endangered unless we teach students that different ideas are not risks that must be avoided.

  • James_IIa

    Ah, the 60’s. I remember arranging discussions among people who held diametrically opposite views on vital subjects. They listened to each other and responded respectfully. As did the audience.

    • GrannyAesop

      I was a student at Rice University in 1973 when an invited speaker was the local Klan Wizard. He didn’t dress in white robes, although a few of the audience did, obviously in satirical protest. The atmosphere was more one of curiosity than animosity. There were thoughtful questions afterwards, but no outbursts, no violence — and no converts that I was aware of.
      I came late and ended up standing with a group of black students, each a foot taller and broader than I was, but they were as quiet and focused as the rest of the audience. Nobody cried at the outrage of having to listen to a man they totally disagreed with.
      Allegedly, there was more action a couple of years before I matriculated, when Abbie Hoffman had to be protected by the ROTC cadets from the boisterous — but still not violent in the Berkeleyian sense — crowd.
      (Not just the behavior but the targets have changed; we were in the nexus of all of that, I think).
      Violence was on the rise outside of academia, but it hadn’t taken hold in the ivied halls yet; that took until the extremists became teachers and administrators in the eighties and nineties, which should be to the eternal shame of everyone concerned.
      “Guilty as hell, free as a bird” should be engraved over every sallyport in the country these days.

      • James_IIa

        I have to point out that most college students thought racism had come to an end by that point. Major civil rights legislation had been passed and the right to vote had been protected. People naively thought that racism was so stupid that it would never again be a factor in American life. Little did they know that the continuation of racism was a guarantee of jobs for some people.

  • alvaro fernandez

    I’m curious about this as I wasn’t alive during the 60s. Was there really no chanting down of speakers, yelling ‘pig’ or whatever at people who were of a different ideological bent? or are we saying it was just less common than now?

    • Stuxwall

      In the course of a demonstration perhaps. But speakers of various positions regularly appeared on campus and were at least treated, more or less, respectfully.

    • Peter Bird

      Watch the Youtube video of James Baldwin and William F Buckley debating in 1965 and see for yourself how students behaved back then.

  • JeffB

    Good luck changing any of this. The left has worked hard for decades to stamp out vocational education and promote the message to young people that there are two paths through life, college or failure. Meanwhile business and government have conspired to drive most of the blue collar jobs out of the country. A guy that scrapes through high school with all Cs used to be able to have a decent go of it but that’s all gone.

  • JeffB

    Never really though of this before but there were a lot of small colleges that sprang up around the country in the 60s as places for students to go to avoid the draft. I’m sure many of those were not intellectually challenging. Maybe that was the start of the perpetual student

  • Merlin Khan

    I remember when attending an event with a controversial speaker was “cool” and a badge of honor. How the progressive liberals have regressed!

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    A student came to speak to you, and you made her cry?

    It is amazing that a student would want to discuss something with a teacher — that is so rare today. That students feel confident enough to disagree with you, that is also a good thing.

    But, in this interaction, is there anything you would have done differently?

    The outcome was not optimal, since you now feel compelled to justify your actions, and the student left in tears. Tears are a powerful emotional signal of someone being pushed too far. I am sure that your supervisor has discussed being more careful next time. Maybe you shouldn’t be teaching, but starting new businesses.

    • bdavi52

      Very funny. Satire, though, is sometimes hard to pick-up in text unless we make it more blatantly plain. As it stands, very subtle & clever, though!

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        Not satire. Serious. In the real world, teachers that make students cry get themselves fired.

  • bdavi52

    No, that’s not it at all.

    Prof. Dnes is undoubtedly correct in his understanding and his observations but the real reason the young ideologue was brought to tears was not her exposure to risk, or the challenge of cherished belief, or the ‘corporatization’ of the modern academy — she burst into tears because, there in the very Temple, sanctum sanctorum, at the foot of the altar, from the mouth of a priest, she heard & witnessed nothing less than absolute sacrilege.

    He said — gasp — the Wage Gap was a Myth, for god’s Sake!! That is heresy, easily right up there with disputation of the 20% Rape Myth, the Systemic Racism Myth, the MicroAggression Myth, the STEM Misogyny Myth, the America as a Pit of Oppression Myth, the T-G Delusion Myth… the list of dogmatic truths is massive. And to hear the robed & collared priest utter such blasphemy there in the Church where all the acolytes present themselves to be drilled in fervent repetition & recitation of these gospels would be simply unbearable. And it was.

    His failure, of course, to even recognize his impiety as impiety — to suggest that the Acolyte had forgotten that the Academy was there to teach her to Inquire & Challenge — simply signals yet again his ignorance of what his role had already essentially become: to chant sonorously the Known Truths from the Book of Oppressive Victimology: “Yes, Virginia, there is (there must be!) a Wage Gap which is (must be!) a function of Sexism, Misogyny, and an Oppressive Patriarchy. Ms. Furchtgott-Roth will be tarred & feathered as soon as she takes the stage!”

    Prof. Dnes is to be admired for his optimism that University Leadership both understands the need to radically shift this infantilizing environment back to what it should be…AND, is actually willing to do such a thing. We can only hope he’s right.