The University: Maker of Dreams

C. Brandon Ogbunu, a computational biologist and assistant professor at Yale University wrote in September 2020 that he was disappointed in the responses of American universities to the Covid crisis.

He claims that their mishandling of campus re-openings shows them falling well short of the noble ideals they are supposed to represent. He accuses universities of blaming students for outbreaks of the virus on campus rather than acknowledging their own misguided decisions and dubious motivations.

In his fanciful description of the university world he says:

“College has endured as a meaningful rite of passage for millions of young people for generations because of the grander lessons on life it instills, the ones that prepare us for being adults and professionals.

Yes, college is supposed to teach us how to deconstruct a piece of literature, think about our political reality, analyze genome data, and build robots. But more than that, it is supposed to teach young people how to think critically and make hard decisions. The reason that millions of talented young people stay in college, even when they have the skills to enter the workforce early, is that college teaches you that patience will pay off in the long run.

In college, we meet collaborators, life partners, and band mates. In the process, we learn how to trust people, conceive of a plan and execute it, make mistakes, own up to them, and adapt. These trials are supposed to be training data for what life as an independent adult will be like. Whatever the specific lessons, the most primal function of college is to set a good example. “

He laments that his own students, who had suffered the effects of the 2016 election and the Covid-19 outbreak were now further disillusioned by universities’ inept attempts to continue offering courses with limited risk.

In a parental voice he apologizes saying:

“Early in the American phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, I witnessed what generational damage to hopes and dreams looked like. But as it was still March, I was optimistic that there was a solution on the way, if not for the pandemic, then for the eroding expectations of young people.

Six months later, my colleagues and I have done far worse than nothing: We’ve facilitated the spread of nihilism to future generations of college students, who have not only been robbed of the essential lessons of a college experience, but have learned far too early that they shouldn’t trust grown-ups, as we are often the ones who have the most to learn.”

Wired article

Yale University’s motto, Lux et Veritas (Latin for “Light and Truth”), is not unlike others’. It represents the lofty ideals of all such institutions. While such aspirations are important they often contrast some of the realities on the ground.

As a first-time-away-from-home experience for many young people university life offers a new-found freedom to let loose. Exuberant drinking is almost a hallmark of many campuses. As are other forms of libertine behavior. While these are not necessarily unworthy components of a student life they are well removed from the lofty goals proclaimed in the university’s glossy brochures.

On the faculty side self-interest and  intense competition often infect the pursuit of pure knowledge. Administrators are obliged to focus on the business of marketing their institution through the development of athletics and research funding programs, for example.

A university experience remains a dream passage for many young people. This is despite the fact that they and their parents may have to sacrifice considerably to make it possible.

In addition, the “essential lessons of a college experience” (claimed above) are not experienced by a majority of North Americans of whom less than 30%  of eligible learners get a university degree.