Colleges' lack of community echoes disconnected society

With the publication last week of ``College: The Undergraduate Experience in America,'' a new chapter has opened in the national debate over education. Now, thanks to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the American college takes home the most comprehensive report card it has ever received. The grades, frankly, are pretty poor. Yet the assessments that back them up - if my own experience as a former university professor is any guide - are chillingly accurate.

Academic defenders of the status quo will, of course, find ways to weasel other meanings out of the language crafted by foundation president Ernest L. Boyer. But the overall drift is unmistakable. ``The undergraduate college, the very heart of higher learning, is a troubled institution,'' he writes. ``Driven by careerism and overshadowed by graduate and professional education, many of the nation's colleges and universities are more successful at credentialing than in providing a quality education for their students.''

The report carefully documents eight ``special points of tension,'' including the discontinuity between high school and college, a confusion over goals, an absence of intellectual vigor in the classroom, a yawning gulf between academic and social life on campus, and a gap between college and the outside world.

True, it also documents some encouraging signs, including surveys done for the foundation showing a nationwide increase in required ``general education'' courses, and polls showing solid support among undergraduates for campus-wide codes of conduct. But the general impression is that even the most promising advances are fragmentary. Overall, the academy remains, in the title words of Dr. Boyer's prologue, ``A House Divided.''

If this report had told us that and nothing more, it would have fulfilled its purpose. In fact, however, its message goes far deeper. In analyzing the troubles within the academy, Boyer drives down through effects toward cause. And the cause he points to, again and again, is not peculiar to the college. It cuts deeply across the rest of society as well. It is the lack of what he calls ``community.''

``By community,'' he writes, ``we mean an undergraduate experience that helps students learn about the world around them, develop a sense of civic and social responsibility, and discover how they, as individuals, can contribute to the larger society of which they are a part.''

Again and again, Boyer returns to this theme of the lost community. ``Colleges appear to be searching for meaning in a world where diversity, not commonality, is the guiding vision,'' he writes. Missing from higher education is the sense of connectedness: On too many campuses, he says, ``students wander from one narrow department requirement to another never discovering connections, never seeing the whole.''

But the problem extends beyond the course work. ``All parts of campus life - recruitment, orientation, curriculum, teaching, residence hall living and the rest - must relate to one another and contribute to a sense of wholeness,'' he writes. ``We emphasize this commitment to community not out of a sentimental attachment to tradition, but because our democratic way of life, and perhaps our survival as a people, rest on whether we can move beyond self-interest and begin better to understand the realities of our dependence on each other.''

That's well said. But the problem doesn't stop with the colleges. They may think of themselves as thought leaders and pacesetters. In fact, however, they are also mirrors of society as a whole. ``Today's undergraduates,'' writes Boyer, ``are products of a society in which the call for individual gratification booms forth on every side while the claims of community are weak.''

Little wonder, then, that our colleges are in trouble. They reflect what's around them - a fragmentation of things once unified, an isolation of individuals from the communities that should nourish them, a loss of common vision.

The conclusions? There are two - one stated, one implied. ``The special challenge confronting the undergraduate college,'' Boyer writes, ``is to shape acore of common learning that will express the claims of community'' - to rebuild the sense of a community of learners that once characterized academic life.

The implied challenge is far larger. It is for the nation to recognize that its colleges do not exist in a vacuum. To pound them with criticism - as, no doubt, some readers of Boyer's report will - is really to criticize the society in which they exist. To call responsibly for reform is to recognize the need to reform the goals and habits of the entire nation.

A tall order? Certainly. But not an impossible challenge. The colleges themselves can help lead the way. The changes will come when parents, students, public officials, educators, and the public at large begin to recognize that all-out individualism is pretty thin glue for binding a society together. It will come with the realization that renewal, while it may begin on campuses, must finally extend to a reawakening of the nation's sense of community.

A Monday column

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