Across the United States, the utility and worth of a college education is being called into question. The tangible gains that it may afford seem increasingly fleeting; as the prospects for sustaining what remains of the relative prosperity that accompanied America’s dominance after World War II fade and recede swiftly into a morass of political nonsense, young people are rendered more dependent on their families for longer periods and denied the opportunities that seemed so abundant to our parents. Some among the older generations blame us for this retrogression, while others recognize, to varying extents, the deeply rooted forces at play.
Still others resent those of us who manage to “make it to the top,” citing (largely correctly) the abuses against the public by a disconnected, technocratic elite that, emboldened to take advantage of the situation, does just that. All of this is to say that the dynamic observed on a college campus reflects and is inseparable from broader processes. One assumption surrounding college life is that it does not exemplify or contain the hardships and complexities of the outside world; we are assumed to operate solely on a level of abstraction that is as unknowable to the wider public as it is irrelevant to the material world in which they live, thrive, and cope.
As such, we are castigated and belittled for our disengagement from the “real world.” Our institutions are chastised for enabling and even causing the widening of this chasm. As vacuous and inaccessible as intellectual pursuits may appear on the surface, the trials and tribulations undergone by college students are anything but trivial.
The incessant mockery endured by college students, and young people in general, across the landscape of the mainstream discourse exacts a toll, as reflected in our rampant anxiety and psychological disequilibrium. Often, even we uncritically accept the veracity of this condescending narrative that, although it seems compelling, is every bit as disconnected from the truth as colleges are claimed to be from the rest of the world. This can be seen in our discussions of an “Orange Bubble,” which envelops us, protecting us from danger and discomfort and obscuring their sources from our understanding.
This bubble, an abstraction in itself, represents simultaneously an awareness of our relative safety and a guilt-ridden attitude in relation to that position. It is not wholly invalid to think of academic matters as overly abstract, nor is it wrong to posit the relative insularity of our campus. To the extent that this metaphor is useful for our contemplative isolation, we must recognize the manifold forces that easily intrude into the bubble.
When I claim that our campus is a part of the real world, I mean this in a way that goes well beyond a strict, technical literalism, the basis for which should be self-evident. To expound on this point, it is useful to consider: What, according to the cultural antagonists of the University, is missing from campus life?
First, one might argue, the University caters excessively to the sensibilities of its student body, exacerbating its emotional fragility and reducing its intellectual stature. As in other spheres of life, there is an element of truth underlying this premise; enraged people respond impulsively and immaturely to words and behaviors they find offensive. (If anything, this is an argument for why the University is similar to the real world, since overreaction takes place as much on its outside as within its classrooms.) Any attempt by the University to address a grievance, however symbolic or cosmetic, is then interpreted as a repudiation of its mission: to expose its students to unfriendly perspectives in a ruthless and unceasing quest to more closely approximate the truth.
This encroaching regime of intellectual narrowness leaves students unprepared for the “real world,” where they and their statements will be interrogated and scrutinized without mercy; colleges should apply this mercilessness as a form of preparation. In summary, the University can be unique in its ruthless pursuit of truth, but not in its exercising of compassion; such critics rationalize the unsatisfactory present with the fact that things will be bad in the future.
One may further object that, relative to the population at large, college students can hardly claim to have overwhelming concerns. Like the rest of the world, though, such considerations are distributed unevenly; people on campus have access to very different resources, for instance. In addition, just because such worries and challenges are of a different sort, this does not imply that they are lesser. The differentiation of such difficulties within campus, and from other sorts of rigors, testifies to just how natural they are; distinguished by their own peculiarities, they are also intertwined with their off-campus counterparts.
To solidify this point, we need only observe the stated purposes of education, such as to help people realize their potential and to integrate them into a swiftly changing workforce. College students must deal with not only the composition of the wider society, but also with the specific trials assigned by the culture of college life.
Institutional entanglements are necessarily characteristic of higher education. The very abstractions that are dismissed in popular culture benefit the governments, industries, and other entities with which our campus community sustains relationships. These relationships puncture the bubble that supposedly exempts us from their pressures. To deny this is to disempower and invalidate the struggles of college students, the dismissal of whose hardships only serves to disillusion, atomize, and diminish us.
Braden Flax is a sophomore from Merrick, N.Y. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.