Colleges under scrutiny

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NOW it's the undergraduate colleges that are being cited as a weak link in the American educational chain. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has issued the most systematic study ever of four-year colleges, and found them wanting. The report, entitled ``College: The Undergraduate Experience in America,'' calls for a major overhaul of the system, away from what it sees as student ``overspecialization'' and toward an attitude of greater concern for the social and ethical aspects of various fields of study. It suggests that colleges that don't use standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT as a major admissions criterion drop their requirements that all their applicants take them.

Many of the report's complaints are justified. Yes, too few students make good use of their college libraries; too many professors are afraid they must ``publish or perish.'' Too much has been made of SAT scores over the years. And, yes, a general lack of academic rigor characterizes many - perhaps most - institutions.

But this should not detract from the fact that for students who want to take advantage of opportunities, the opportunities are there.

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Education in the broadest sense is general education, and self-education, less dependent on what the system churns out than on what the students discover for themselves. The best teachers are often those who simply open doors for their students - and then let them proceed on their own.

A nation's institutions of learning reflect, of course, its social values. In today's atomized, me-first, fast-forward world, can colleges and their students be blamed for their ``narrow focus''? How long ago were students being criticized by their elders for being too idealistic, too impractical, too far lost in the groves of academe to acquire any knowledge of the sort people can get paid for having? Now the pendulum is swinging in the other direction.

College isn't going to be for everyone, and for many for whom it is right, the right time may not be between ages 18 and 22. One of the strengths of the American system is its openness, its variety.

For many, those years on campus are an important formative time, a time of (relative) quiet and freedom from economic and family pressures, a time to explore ideas and think thoughts through to the end.

As long as colleges continue to provide those opportunities, whatever trouble they are now in may not be that critical.

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