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What If Higher Education Were a Right?

The recent incidents of college craziness have led me to wonder what would happen if higher education were made a right, as some demand ("The Fairness Doctrine," The Weekly Standard, Nov. 30)?  I think the answer to my question has direct implications for students and parents who are considering education beyond the 12th grade.

I've long believed that when anything is considered an entitlement, it creates an attitude that has unintended consequences.  When I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1950s, students felt honored to be there.  I know I did.  Not only had I been admitted to an Ivy League school, but I was surrounded by some of the smartest students I've ever known.  As a result, it never occured to any one of us to take for granted the education we were receiving. Yes, we engaged in heated debates about controversial issues of the day, but then we hit the books - not the street.  It's true that tuition was nowhere what it is now and that not all professors were effective, but those things were beside the point.  

In contrast, students today view themselves as customers who have jumped through many hoops and have paid a stiff tuition.  Therefore, they believe they automatically deserve a bachelor's degree.  They also believe that professors exist to assure they get the degree, regardless of what little effort they make.  As a result, knowledge takes a back seat to ego protection for at least 2,300 students at 24 colleges and universities (Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, University of Chicago Press, 2011).  Actually, I think the number is far greater.  If higher education were to become a right, as some argue, the situation today would seem halcyon.

The reality is that after graduation young people will soon realize that no one cares one whit about their feelings. They will have to meet the demands of their employer or find themselves out of a job. That's why I think the college-for-all movement is a terrible mistake, and free college for all is even a bigger one ("Free Tuition Is Not the Answer," The New York Times, Nov. 30).  Too many students lack the wherewithal to do the work and/or handle the bruised feelings ("microaggressions") that invariably come with interacting with others holding different opinions.  I say it's time for them to grow up.  Already, forty percent of students are ill-prepared to enter the work force ("Test Finds College Graduates Lack Skills for White-Collar Jobs," The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 17).  

College was never intended to be a place where only ideas and comments that reinforced existing ones were allowed.  It existed to challenge these.  If that means sometimes hurting another person's feelings, then it's the price that has to be paid.  I'm not talking about hate speech, which is an entirely different issue.  But too many students today forget that not everything worthwhile saying can be expressed in comforting words.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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