Education

The False Promise of 'Community' on Campus

What a separate commencement for black graduates at Harvard tells us about U.S. higher education.

Doing well, doing good.

Photographer: Brooks Kraft/Corbis via Getty Images

“The primary reason we wanted to do this is we really wanted to come together to celebrate Harvard black excellence and brilliance. ... This is really an opportunity for students to build fellowship and build a community.”

That was Michael Huggins, president of the Harvard Black Graduate Student Alliance, explaining why the group has organized a separate graduation ceremony for black students this week. There are plenty of reasons to balk at the event -- the segregationist tendency, for starters. But there is also reason to wonder why it is that students who have spent four years or more at one of the most comprehensive, most exclusive universities in the country are still struggling to find “fellowship” and “community.”

University administrators like to throw around the word community. There is the African-American community, the Latino community and the mixed-race community, not to mention the Jewish community, the Muslim community and the Wiccan community. There is the LGBT community, the athletic community, the scientific community and the arts community.

Unfortunately, most students do not seem to feel that they are part of the college community. UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that only 28.7 percent of seniors graduating from baccalaureate institutions strongly agreed that they have a sense of belonging to their college community. 

And university administrators, perhaps partly because they are so busy dividing students into various racial or sexual affinity groups, are not fixing the problem. Indeed, as we saw last week with the suspension of a Yale University dean who was writing Yelp reviews of restaurants that mentioned how “white trash” might enjoy them and how movie theater employees were “barely educated morons,” some of these administrators are making matters worse.

Despite their advertising to the contrary, colleges are not a place for community, but a place for individuals to pursue their own goals. Most of the time these goals relate to finding a job and earning a living after college. A New America Foundation survey from 2015 found that about three-quarters of entering freshmen said that getting a job and making money were “very important” reasons to go to college, compared with 61 percent who said they wanted to learn more about a topic of interest. Only 51 percent wanted to become a better person. 

Perhaps findings like this help put the big cheating scandals at Harvard in perspective. More than 60 students were found to have cheated in an introductory computer science course last fall. In 2012, 125 students were found to have cheated in a course called Introduction to Congress. It is not that students at elite universities don’t care about the wider world -- many of them are engaged in community service during college and afterward. Many hope with their careers to fix national and global problems.

But they seem to have little regard for their fellow students or their professors. In a February 2017 survey of 300 college students by Kessler International, 86 percent claimed they cheated in some way in school, and 54 percent said cheating was OK. The interviewers reported that “some went so far as to say [cheating] is necessary to stay competitive.”

The reality, as opposed to the rhetoric, is that colleges, including small residential schools, are places where people are only secondarily concerned with the welfare of those around them. This is not true of certain institutions, whose missions are very much concerned with communal (and eternal) issues. Administrators at Brigham Young or Yeshiva University or Thomas Aquinas College do not spend a lot of time wondering how to create “community.” Their students are there because they see attendance at the college as helping to fulfill their role in a community to which they belonged before they took the SATs and which will likely continue long past their 10th reunion.

The missions of most American universities, on the other hand, are largely indistinguishable, even at schools that the outside world would regard as distinguished. Amherst wants students to “seek, value, and advance knowledge, engage the world around them, and lead principled lives of consequence.” Middlebury wants to “cultivate the intellectual, creative, physical, ethical, and social qualities essential for leadership in a rapidly changing global community.” Yale is “committed to improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice.”

You can walk into a classroom at any such college blindfolded and never figure out which one is which. As the faculty has become more specialized, and disciplines have less and less to do with one another, the notion of a college community seems more far-fetched than ever. In a recent dispute at Wake Forest, professors from some disciplines were threatening to deny credit to students taking a course in another discipline because they disagreed with a professor’s politics.

If specific and deep educational goals do not unite a university community, then students will inevitably fall back on other understandings of community -- ones that are mostly based on race, ethnicity or sexual preferences. The prevalence of identity politics on campus is certainly the result in part of a culture that has come to value victim status above all else, and one that believes our racial and sexual identities are more important than our common humanity.

But they are also the inevitable consequence of universities that cannot articulate a higher purpose, even if every commencement speaker refers to such a cause. If students are still reading the great texts of Western Civilization (or any civilization), there is no sense that such study brings them closer to an understanding of Truth. Nor is there a sense that students will gain an understanding of the importance of self-sacrifice for a larger purpose -- their country, for instance -- or a sense that higher education (even when it’s not religious) can be a moral education.

In a 2003 essay in The Public Interest called “Souls Without Longing,” Robert Bartlett described the ennui that had taken root in his students -- an ennui tied not only to living lives of relative peace and comfort, but also to the fact that little had been asked of them beyond getting good grades.

The first important cause of boredom among my students is the decline of… community as a vital presence in their lives. They arrive on campus with meaningful connections only to their immediate families and they will return to them as visitors. Teams, clubs, and fraternities and sororities certainly draw students out; but these occupy more their time than their hearts, and the connections thus formed typically dissolve on graduation day.

And a second graduation day is unlikely to change that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Naomi Schaefer Riley at Naomisriley@gmail.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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