clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

In our opinion: Why did it take a pandemic for colleges to treat students like adults?

In its quest to build adolescents into thoughtful adults, higher education is failing.

In this Aug. 25, 2020, file photo, a cyclist, wearing a mask to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, rides by an entrance to the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press

After a rash of off-campus parties and increases in COVID-19 infections, colleges and universities are wondering why students aren’t able to follow the rules for a safe campus environment. “... Anchor down, step up and do your part,” was one university’s plea to its student body. “Be better. Be adults,” came another censure.

What’s stunning is not how quickly students are falling into the routines of normal campus life but how urgently universities want their students to act their age. For years, those institutions have done the opposite: fostering cultures of ideological sheltering that hardly help pupils learn to navigate adult life.

Free speech and the competition of ideas are critical for teaching deep thinking, analysis and problem-solving. They are also bedrocks of America’s foundation. No other nation was so committed to the free enterprise of both commerce and ideology as the United States was after it emerged from the Constitutional Convention. Those principles have been the envy of the free world ever since.

It stands to reason, then, that they should be thoroughly taught and applied within the country’s academic training grounds. Sadly, they aren’t as universally loved there as they should be or once were.

Consider this parallel posed by social scientist and Harvard professor Arthur Brooks in his book, “Love Your Enemies”:

“Imagine if the U.S. Olympic Team decided that team sports were bad for self-esteem, that painful training to improve skills was harmful, and that being exposed to competitors would make the athletes feel unsafe.”

His answer: “Ridiculous, of course.” But that’s a growing and pervasive mindset among administrators and student bodies across the country. It has the potential to do real harm to a generation of Americans who are being taught that shutting down competition is preferable to letting ideas wrestle in the arena of truth.

In one recent study, Brooks recounts, researchers found that for every politically conservative social psychologist in academia, there are roughly 14 politically liberal social psychologists, and 82% of social psychologists said they would be less likely to hire a conservative candidate.

That’s great if you’re looking for an ideologically pure curriculum, but it’s terrible for intellectual diversity.

In its quest to build adolescents into thoughtful adults, higher education is failing. Rather than condoning, or even promoting, groupthink and emotional reasoning, institutions should take a cue from philosopher and political scientist John Stuart Mill:

“It is hardly possible to overrate the value ... of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. … Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.”

That progress is liable to stall or reverse itself if America doesn’t cultivate great thinkers and great disagreers.

The pandemic has compelled colleges to treat their students like adults, but the test for higher education comes when campuses are virus-free. They should take seriously their urgings and craft academic cultures that strengthen the resolve to pursue truth wherever it is found while learning to disagree and debate along the way.