If there is one event that sums up all that is wrong with American university life, it is spring break, which occurred earlier this month. I was lecturing in Miami Beach, where I grew up, and was walking on the city’s famed boardwalk. Thousands of college students, all in their late teens and early ‘0s, were lounging on the sand. It was a sobering sight. The female students’ beach attire was close to nonexistent. 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 re-evaluation of whether our children progress or regress at university. The simple fact is that the American campus is not a very healthy place and belies its description as a place 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 ‘004 novel "I Am Charlotte Simmons." Readers of the book would scarcely believe the description of the American campus 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. Less so would they believe the complicity with which women have joined in their own degradation.
Most of us believe that sending a daughter off to college will safeguard her future and increase her self-esteem as she walks away educated and with a respected degree. In fact, for a great many young women the campus environment fosters permanent anxiety as to their looks and a concern that rejecting the prevailing sexual availability will label them as unpopular prudes.
Recently, we learned the astonishing story of DePauw University expelling the national sorority Delta Zeta after the group kicked out ‘3 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 supposedly 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 ethnic features. Jews getting nose jobs and blacks bleaching their skin are classic cases in point. 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 coeds, 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 the University of California at 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. Incredible, to actually become dumber 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 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."
Oxford provided a good education in the arts and the sciences. But in personal matters, most students regressed. They drank themselves into 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 relationship. 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?
I now believe that parents should be looking at single-sex and religiously inclined alternatives to the mainstream universities for their sons and daughters that truly are about maturing, being educated, and being prepared for the mastery of both the professional and personal sectors.
I attended rabbinical college. There were no women. We were there to study, not socialize. When people ask me today how young rabbis have so much information, I tell them it has less to do with any kind of genius and more to do with the absence of socializing with the opposite sex. True, we may not have had as much entertainment. But then, universities are supposed to be more about libraries and classrooms than nightclubs and bars.