Can you hear the tune playing? “Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce. Special orders don’t upset us. All we ask is that you let us serve it your way. … Have it your way at Burger King.”
It’s an enduring commercial with a memorable tune. Forty-three years since its release, people still recall the jingle as one of the most effective pieces of advertising ever made, driving home exactly what Burger King was selling — convenience, made-to-order fast food, delivered to you just the way you like it, no questions, no lip, no delay.
It’s the Burger King mentality, and it’s great for ordering a drive-thru dinner. But the sentiment has crept into a lot of college campuses lately, and unless you’re in the student union food court, the Burger King mentality has no place at these institutions of higher learning. In fact, it can do real damage to a four-year investment in a college education.
Sadly, however, that’s how many students think of this four-year investment in a college education. Take this example:
Back in my early days of college, I complained often and loudly about any professor who had the temerity to include attendance as part of the course grade. ‘Not only am I capable of making my own decisions about going to class,’ I’d explain haughtily, ‘my tuition and fees pay his salary, so I should really get to choose how I’m graded.’ I eventually learned the inherent flaws of this opinion – thanks in no small part to several well-meaning professors more than happy to use ample amounts of that mandatory class time disabusing me of this and myriad other asinine notions.
Unfortunately, my consumer-based justification for why I ‘deserved’ to be given a bespoke educational experience – I pay your salary – is quite common on college and university campuses. Rather than consider postsecondary education an undertaking of self-improvement or intellectual exploration, many students approach college as more akin to ordering off a fast-food menu: I already know what I want, and since I’m paying, I expect it served to me just as I asked, immediately.
This is how Grant Addison, an education policy studies research assistant barely out of college, described his thinking. His mind has changed since conducting the research showing the downside of such a haughty outlook.
Put generally, evidence suggests that today’s students graduate without sufficient intellectual humility. Intellectual humility governs how a person views (one’s) own mental capabilities: This involves things like one’s understanding of the limitations of their knowledge, receptivity to new ideas and evidence and ability to consider new or conflicting information fairly and dispassionately. Critical-thinking and argumentative-reasoning skills draw from this well, as do many emotional qualities related to positive social interaction. Therefore, along with increased educative abilities, the intellectually humble are also better able to engage in civil discourse and interact with opposing perspectives.
Unfortunately, intellectual humility has gone out the door as universities shift “toward a customer-service paradigm.” The commodifying of higher education — in which university administrators focus on the bottom line rather than on higher learning — has created other problems as well.
The first is that schools are intolerant of intellectual diversity, which means little room for dissent or creative energy. You can’t churn out uniform degrees if everyone has his or her own opinion. And this means a crackdown on the very purpose of university education — intellectual rigor and truth-seeking.
Perhaps nowhere has the abject failure of higher education to teach students to think critically or act maturely and civilly been on greater display than with the issue of free speech and expression. Examples of campus-speech controversies are numerous and varied, yet together they illustrate of a kind of intellectual protectionism that has consumed a significant portion of higher education. Feeling entitled as consumers, petulant students increasingly demand safety from and punishment of any views deemed ‘offensive’ or simply unwanted – justifying censorship with such intellectually bankrupt canards as ‘speech is violence,’ or even perpetrating actual violence. Fearing the ire of the campus mob – or worse, that prospective students might not view their school as ‘supportive’ – feckless administrators turn a blind eye to their institutional strictures and basic psychology to join this regressive call-and-response.
If that weren’t bad enough, then there’s this: Uniformity is taking its toll not only on the ability of students to think critically or to engage in intellectual disputes, but also it is damaging their ability to function in the workforce.
Just this week, The Wall Street Journal unearthed more data highlighting the failure of colleges and universities to improve students’ critical-thinking skills. This analysis builds on earlier work by Rich Arum and Josipa Roska concerning undergraduates’ abysmal results on the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus, a little-known test that measures students’ critical-thinking, analytical-reasoning and problem-solving abilities. According to test results from dozens of public colleges and universities between 2013 and 2016, the Journal found, “At more than half of schools, at least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document or interpret data in a table.” Even at some of the most prestigious flagship universities, “the average graduate shows little or no improvement in critical thinking over four years.’
These findings come on the heels of last Friday’s lackluster May jobs report, which detailed a continued deceleration of the job-growth rate. Analysts believe this signals that businesses are struggling to find qualified candidates to hire – which is consistent with reams of survey data gathered from employers who lament that newly hired college graduates aren’t prepared for the workforce. When asked which traits are lacking, most employers cite either critical-reasoning skills or interpersonal or people skills as their primary complaints.
What can be done? Well, there’s always the money angle, and removing the wrinkle of unfettered tuition loans in the supply-demand formula. Then there’s the option to skip the universities and choose alternative educational methods to hone valuable skills for the workplace. Lastly, administrators could return to doing their jobs.
As social scientist Charles Murray points out after a recent protest-turned-assault at Middlebury College, the president of the school could have used her authority to hold the offending students accountable. She did not. It would have been a good place to start, yet inaction has become the all-too-common response of late.
Murray quotes social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s description of Aristotle’s concept of telos as an aspiration these administrators may want to revive. “A university must have one and only one highest and inviolable good,” in this case, truth.
The competing agenda of social justice is incompatible with truth. In their personal lives, students, faculty, and administrators are free to pursue social justice as they define it. But the university cannot take sides. The end of the university, its very reason for being, is to enable the unending, incremental, and disputatious search for truth. A university must be a safe place for intellectual freedom, else it has failed in its purpose.”
To wit: if you use a Burger King mentality, don’t expect to get a prime rib-quality education.