If there is one event that sums up all that is wrong with American university life, it is spring break, which many colleges celebrated last week. As it happens, I was lecturing then in Miami Beach, where I grew up, and was walking on the city’s famed boardwalk. Thousands of young college students, all in their late teens and early 20s, were lounging on the sand. It was a sobering site. The female students' beach attire was close to non-existent. Time was when the bikini was considered revealing. Today it is only for prudes and the modestly attired. These young women were already perfecting their role as eye candy for men. Is this what they were learning in college?
Western educational life revolves around getting into a good college. But the time has come for a fundamental reevaluation of whether our children progress or regress at university. The simple fact is that the American campus is not a very healthy place and the reality of what goes on at most universities belies their description as places of ‘higher’ education.
Before parents send their kids off to college, they should travel to a nearby campus and witness its shenanigans for themselves. That’s what the celebrated novelist Tom Wolfe did for his 2004 novel, "I Am Charlotte Simmons." Readers of the book would scarcely believe the description of American college life as a giant orgy filled with misogynistic men who harbor indescribable contempt for women and arrive on campus with the stated intention of bedding as many as possible. Even more unbelievable is the complicity with which women have joined in their own degradation.
Most of us believe that sending our daughters off to college will safeguard their future and increase their self-esteem as they walk away educated and with a respected degree. In fact, for a great many young women the campus environment serves to foster permanent anxiety abouttheir looks and a concern that rejecting the prevailing sexual availability will stigmatize them as unpopular prudes.
Last week, there was the astonishing story of DePauw University expelling the national sorority Delta Zeta after the group kicked out 23 of its members for being overweight and "socially awkward." Universities are supposed to be places where women can get an education. But these students were thrown out of their sorority for being overweight or looking ethnic rather than being the Barbie cutouts that campus men prefer.
Sociologists have long pointed out how, over time, persecuted minorities internalize the hatred shown them. This self-hatred often manifests itself in the form of contempt for ethic features. Jews getting nose jobs and blacks bleaching their skin are classic examples. But we are beginning to see this happen with women on campus, as the DePauw example makes clear. Few women in society are as self-conscious about their looks as women on campuses, which undermines the whole notion of being appreciated for their minds rather than their bodies.
Not that the universities are succeeding in educating students anyway. I run a small office of employees and regularly interview candidates right out of college. A great many with degrees cannot spell , have scant knowledge of punctuation and grammar, and are utterly ignorant of history and world affairs. At UC Berkeley, freshmen who took a national test focusing on history and general knowledge scored, on average, 60 percent. Seniors, incredibly, averaged only 55 percent, earning the storied university a negative learning rank (Oakland Tribune). Fifteen other universities, including Johns Hopkins, also earned negative learning ranks. It's incredible to contemplate that students may actually become more stupid, rather than more smart, after four years of college. Another study by the National Association of Scholars found that today’s college students are barely more knowledgeable than high school students were 50 years ago.
When I was the rabbi at Oxford University for 11 years, I often marveled at the university’s failure to instill a sense of intellectual curiosity in its students. True, there were the elite American students on special scholarships like the Rhodes, Fulbright, and Marshall who were sponges for information. But few other students cared about even reading a newspaper.
A USA Today study showed that more than 50 percent of college students at four-year institutions do not understand arguments of newspaper editorials, are unable to compare credit-card offers of different interest rates and fees, and cannot interpret a table of exercise and blood pressure.
For most young people today, going to university is less about getting an education than acquiring freedom and the ability to experiment. Breaking free of parental supervision, they spend four years drinking, partying, and 'hooking up.'
At Oxford, the university provided a good education in the arts and the sciences. But in personal matters, most students regressed. They drank themselves to oblivion and bounced from relationship to relationship, acquiring emotional scars in the process. None of this augured well for their later ability to enter into and thrive in a long-term, intimate relationships. Is it any wonder then, that the most educated generation of all time also has the highest divorce rate, when there is a direct correlation between amount of time spent at university and the number of casual sexual encounters that are had?