As summer arrives, chances are good that many of us will attend ceremonies of commencement—moments of transition in which one phase of life comes to a close and a new one begins. As regular readers know well, we have a sustained interest in the shape and nature of education in the United States, particularly the role of colleges and universities in shaping our broader culture. As such, we bring you two recent pieces on the nature of campus life in America.

The first, written by Nathan Heller, highlights the emergent moral and social norms on elite campuses like Ohio’s Oberlin College. Titled “The Big Uneasy,” Heller’s piece explains the concept of “allyship,” defined as a “more contemporary answer to the challenges of pluralism.” The essence of allyship is the thought that “If you are a white male student…you cannot know what it means to be, say, a Latina; the social and the institutional worlds respond differently to her, and a hundred aggressions, large and small, are baked into the system. You can make yourself her ally, though—deferring to her experience, learning from her accounts, and supporting her struggles. You can reach for unity in difference.”

Through sustained attention to the experiences of selected Oberlin students (and the ways in which they narrate those experiences), Heller makes clear that at Oberlin, allyship is now both expected and exhausting. For students who have long been trained in individuation and schooled in ever more detailed modes of self-presentation, discussing matters of common concern in a diverse group setting is immensely difficult. In a typical Oberlin classroom, the degree of difference between students’ various performative identities is so vast that the forms of generalization needed for intellectual conversation are ruled out of bounds from the outset. “The fear in class isn’t getting something wrong,” the former chair of Oberlin’s Student Union Board says, “but having your voice rejected…People are so amazed that other people could have a different opinion from them that they don’t want to hear it.”

This is the new face of student activism at the elite universities of America. It is, according to Heller, a shift in the “meaning of contemporary liberalism without changing its ideals” [emphasis added]. The picture Heller paints of current Oberlin students is what he calls “the Firebrand Generation.” “They are adept and accomplished,” he says, “but many feel betrayed by their supposed political guardians, and aspire to tear down the web of deceptions from the inside.”

 

In a brief piece for The American Prospect, Eyal Press paints a very different picture of the core challenges facing American university students—especially at universities of lesser academic, cultural, and political status. During his tenure as a visiting professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz, Press reports no push for trigger warnings or difficulty in discussing the manifestly touchy subjects of his seminar (“abortion, immigration, Islamophobia, the gun debate, campus rape”). Quite the opposite. “The undergrads I met did not express a desire to be spared from exposure to disturbing literature,” Press says; “What they did express, over and over again, was a desire to be spared from the financial debt they were accumulating.” While Press is clear that while discussion of trigger warnings and the like does come up from time to time at SUNY New Paltz, students’ overwhelming concern is not securing the conditions under which they can authentically perform their identities; it is, rather, securing the conditions under which they can secure a minimally decent life. He explains:

Aside from occasional grumbles that the food was expensive, I didn’t hear many students at SUNY New Paltz complain about the dining options on campus. What I did frequently overhear were complaints about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s so-called “rational tuition policy,” a plan unveiled in 2011 that called for regular tuition increases of $300 a year. The policy does not seem rational to many students, and for good reason: Since 2008, the year the Great Recession began to increase the strain on many middle-class families, the cost of a public four-year college in New York has risen by 25.8 percent, while state spending per student has declined by 7 percent. As bad as things are in New York, they’re worse for students attending public universities in other states. In Arizona, for example, tuition to attend a four-year state institution has increased by 83.6 percent since 2008, while spending per student has declined by 47 percent. In California, the cost has gone up 62.2 percent.

These two pieces reveal a deep rift in attitudes toward college in American cultural life. For some, like the Oberlin students Heller profiles, college is a stepping stone, a credentialing agent that launches young people into the professional class while providing the “safe space” required to perform their individual identities. For others, college is itself an aspiration and an achievement, but one that is increasingly difficult to afford.

As we now know, the percentage of the population who have completed college degrees is steadily rising, making a college degree an increasingly necessary qualification for success in the modern workforce. Yet we are also coming to see that the financial bubble created by easy access to credit for student loans is a significant source of economic and cultural anxiety. Just to prove this point, note the study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research this week claiming that students attending for-profit colleges for Bachelor’s and Associates’ degrees end up with lower wages than similar students at public community colleges. This suggests, at a very minimum, that significant swaths of the American population are pursuing an expensive college education under the unstable pretense that a degree is their ticket to a better life. It is for some; but far fewer than we would like to think.