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Academic Nightmares: Where Everybody Majors in Money


Have you ever dreamed you were back in college and suddenly realized you had an exam in a course in which you didn’t even know you were enrolled? The exam is just hours away. There’s no way to learn an entire semester’s worth of material in that time. You’re overcome by panic.   Suddenly, your whole future is hanging in the balance. You’ve ruined your life!

My guess is that nightmares like that will die out with the last of the baby boomers. Today’s students don’t have to worry about situations like that; their universities will almost always accommodate them. Never show up for class? No problem. Just arrange with your professor to get an INC instead of a grade. INC stands for “incomplete.” This will allow you to do all the work for the course, later, at your leisure. Don’t worry that you won’t have gotten the benefit of whatever went on in the classroom. If going to class were important, your university wouldn’t allow you to “complete” courses you never actually attended.

You think I’m making this up. I’m not. I’ve had students write me in week seven of a ten week term, apologizing for never (yes, that’s right NEVER) having been to class and asking me whether there was anything they could do to make it up. My response is always, no, there is nothing they can do apart from seeing whether they can arrange a “late withdrawal.” Week six, you see, is the deadline for withdrawing from a course. (My guess is that they wait until week seven to approach their instructors in the hope that the instructor will take pity on them since they can no longer withdraw.)

Where do students get the idea that they could actually receive a passing grade, and hence academic credit, for a course they’ve never attended? Why from their universities of course. If not directly from the universities, at least indirectly. My guess is that there are more than a few “contingent faculty” who are afraid to fail students because these students, just like all their other students, get to do teaching evaluations. And a series of bad teaching evaluations can mean the non-renewal of their contracts.

That said, most universities do everything they can to make life easy for students. The university of North Carolina at Chapel Hill now faces one year of probation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges as a result of a report that documents “widespread and long-lasting academic fraud at the university.” For years, employees of the university “knowingly steered about 1,5000 athletes toward no-show courses that never met and were not taught by any faculty members, and in which the only work required was a single research paper that received a high grade no matter what the content.”

It isn’t only athletes who get the benefit of such “no-show” courses. Small academic programs and departments struggling to survive occasionally come up with such courses as a way of boosting their numbers of majors. Even Harvard is now having to grapple with the question of whether their “General Education” program has had the effect of encouraging students to take easy courses.

Universities will bend over backwards not to fail a student–so long as he or she is actually paying tuition. I know of a case of a professor who was told by the director of the program in which the professor teaches to “take some responsibility” for the fact that some of this professor’s students were failing a course. Apparently, the professor was expected to find a way to ensure that all the students passed the course. Fortunately, the professor is tenured, and hence had to freedom to refuse to do more than to try to help the students actually LEARN the material. Would an adjunct have felt free to do the same thing?

Students are increasingly perceived as customers and some administrators, and even some faculty, appear to conceive the “product” the university is selling as a degree rather than an education, so it does seem counter productive to risk losing a customer for something so insignificant as failing to go to class.

Failing to pay tuition, however, is a different matter. Faculty are sometimes instructed not to allow students to attend courses if they have not paid their tuition by the beginning of the term (which, because of the glacial slowness of some financial aid programs, is frequently a problem).

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about how all students need to be taught ethics in college. Of course you can’t require everyone to take the standard ethics class that is taught in the philosophy department. That would be too much work. If you suddenly are going to require that everyone at your university take ethics, well, you’d better dumb it down, so students won’t object.

Keep it rigorous, or dumb it down, requiring students to take an ethics course is unlikely to make them more ethical. The thing is, you rarely make people ethical by teaching them ethics. You can help them to better understand the complexities of some ethical dilemmas and you can arm them with theoretical language they can use to defend choices they probably would have made anyway, but that doesn’t make them better people so much as it makes them happier people.

Moral character is largely formed by the time students enter college. It isn’t entirely formed, of course, so what happens to students in college can affect their moral development. People are so profoundly social that they continue to develop their conceptions of what is acceptable behavior throughout their entire lives. Aristotle recognized that. That’s why he asserted that ethics was a subset of politics. If you want people to behave well, you have to organize your society in such a way that it sends a clear message concerning the behavior it approves of and the behavior it condemns. If the leaders of a given society want people to be honest and responsible, then they have to exemplify these character traits themselves, and then reward citizens who emulate their example.

Universities would do a much better job of shaping students’ characters in positive ways if instead of requiring students to take dumbed-down ethics classes, they gave a damn about ethics themselves, if they cared more about actually delivering the product they purport to be selling, rather than giving mere lip service to it. Many universities are now delivering degrees that are effectively equivalent to the indulgences sold by the Catholic church in the middle ages: expensive, but otherwise meaningless, pieces of paper.

Today’s college students may be ignorant, but they aren’t stupid. They take the measure of an institution pretty quickly. They can smell hypocrisy, and if they have to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for the dubious privilege of uninterrupted olfactory assault, they’ll very likely develop the moral equivalent of olfactory fatigue. The message that, sadly, is all too often driven home to students today is that none of the traditional human values that educational institutions purport to preserve and foster, including learning in the broadest sense, really matter. The message they all to often receive now is that nothing really matters but money.

Now THAT is a nightmare!

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: 

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