Now that most of the college students are back on campus, we can reflect on a few long-term trends. These come from a couple of different surveys from the Pew Research Center. First, 51% of college presidents say that online courses provide an educational value equal to that of traditional courses taught in a classroom or lecture hall. Only 29% of people agree. Second, whereas half of women college graduates report that college offers good value for the investment, only 37% of male college graduates do. That more women graduate from college these days than men in the first place suggests that the sexes are even more divided on the question of the value of college. Third, 55% of college presidents say that plagiarism is up over the last ten years. The overwhelming consensus (89%) puts the blame largely on expanded use of computers and the Internet. Beyond what these surveys indicate at face value, what are we to make of these developments?
The opinion of college presidents with respect to online courses seems to me to tell us a lot more about college presidents than the Internet and education. Most people see a clear difference between actually being in a classroom with a professor and students on the one hand and trying to recreate that experience online on the other. The difference seems obvious. I know a young woman whose fiancé was stationed overseas. They would have dinner together at least once a week on Skype. Does anyone think they would not have preferred to be actually eating together? College presidents, I suspect, are looking more at the numbers. The college can hire fewer professors, reach more students, and thus make more money. I also imagine that too many college presidents are the people at their institutions least able to see and therefore least capable of articulating the value of traditional learning. Such is the reality of the modern college administration, with only a few important exceptions.
Why are women more likely to see a greater value in college than men? It is true that we are experiencing today a crisis in manhood—a theme I hope to address more over the coming months. The most recent exploration of this topic is Kay Hymowitz’s Manning Up. So there can be no doubt that many young men these days are not mature enough to realize the value of learning even as it relates to higher earning potential, much less study for its own sake. At the same time, has not college—much like the schools—failed men by providing environments that are either overtly or covertly hostile to anything remotely masculine? The leading disciplines in the humanities are simply anti-male. Most history classes are taught from the perspective of “history from the bottom up.” In other words, elite white males oppressed all “others” (in race, class, gender), so let’s study how these various and sundry others coped with their circumstances. Out go war and politics. In English classes, it’s much the same, although likely more radical. “Queer theory” (not my phrase) is still, I believe, a hot topic in leading English departments. How many eighteen-year-old males—many of them athletes and the rest spending a considerable amount of time in the gym (and actively pursuing female companionship)—want to discuss homosexual characters (or perceived homosexual characters) in literature? In fact, who does?
Finally, what about this plagiarism business? On this question, I should really like some insight from the college students. True, the Internet allows a ready-made paper to be a Google search away. (It is also easier for professors to catch plagiarists,) But can that be the whole story? In the first instance, most students come to college wholly unprepared to write a paper of any kind because the schools have not taught them how. When students ask “how long” a paper must be (as they invariably do) and the professor says “5-7 pages,” they gasp. Thus, many students don’t know how to get started, put the paper off for a long time, then panic at the last minute. Second, I wonder also about the character of those doing the plagiarizing and the institutions responsible for building that character. It is true that all schools and colleges have policies against cheating. Some have an honor code. But do these educational institutions really do anything to inculcate honor other than saying “don’t cheat”? When Robert E. Lee as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee) said, “We have but one rule here, that every student is a gentleman,” everyone knew what that meant. Does anyone know what honor means today? Do educational institutions teach honor? I am reminded of an anecdote told by Christina Hoff Sommers. She taught moral philosophy, and a colleague of hers did also. The difference was that Professor Sommers taught a traditional Aristotle-based course in what is now called “virtue ethics.” Her colleague taught a Nietzschean-derived “values clarification” class that amounted to moral relativism. When the students of the other professor’s class turned in their papers, over half had cheated. And the professor was surprised!