Five or six minutes before the end of the period, the professor can sense it: a restless rustling throughout the lecture hall. The students emerge from their online shopping and Snapchat stories to begin noisily packing away their belongings, drowning out the instructor’s final point. The students decide en masse to make a break for the door, a minute or two shy of the true end of the class.
Ever have an experience like this? Any student who has attended even a medium-sized lecture on this campus will know what I’m talking about. That’s because despite attending a world-class university, a lot of University of Wisconsin students tend to have a lousy attitude toward learning.
True, there are plenty of students doing important and fulfilling academic work here, but just as many of us view our coursework as merely a nuisance, something to be finished quickly and forgotten. Many of us seem to feel entitled to a college experience that is comfortable, rather than one that is challenging.
This is a problematic attitude. In the pursuit of a personally convenient education we have begun to act more like consumers than students. We consume alcohol, media, exercise, food and sex with desperation — we often sleepwalk through our lectures and avoid critical thought wherever possible. This behavior may be good practice for the modern world of work, which often cares little for our fulfillment or health. It is also, however, a complete distraction from our mission as students to explore, learn and grow.
It’s too easy to put the blame for this kind of behavior on the student body. While we do bear some of the responsibility, part of the blame must go to an unhealthy campus climate that celebrates achievement over learning.
We students are stressed out by the pervasive idea that our education has little value beyond the job it may land us in an uncertain future. For many, the pressure to succeed has reduced what should feel like a privilege to a four-year chore.
Maybe the most affected by this kind of stress are the kids who, despite a sparkling high school record, lack the direction and emotional maturity required for success at college. The university administration may see attracting these kids and the out-of-state tuition they bring as the best way to remain financially solvent in an austere political climate. But abandoning its central mission of education in order to act as a babysitter for affluent kids is a counterproductive move on the part of the university.
What is the administration doing wrong here? Certainly, the university could change certain policies to redirect students’ attention to learning. For instance, we could easily do without distracting personal technology in most classrooms.
On paper, however, the university seems committed to providing a healthy and stimulating college experience for all students. Our admissions standards, though questionable in some respects, remain rigorous. Additionally, the university generally spends equitably and well when it comes to campus life institutions. A good example is the upcoming Southeast Recreational Facility renovation, which will ensure students have a low-cost, high-quality option for exercise.
But the immediate campus environment is only part of the picture. Just beyond the boundaries of the university, innumerable luxury high rises cater to wealthy students and crowd out those of more modest means. Large sections of University Avenue, West Johnson Street and State Street are quickly developing into a private-market playground for rich students. Though most students live, work and play in downtown Madison, the area is becoming inaccessible to those in the lower and middle classes.
Thus, by recruiting and accepting kids who are unready for or uninterested in college, and by refusing to challenge the private market inequality that dominates downtown Madison, UW has encouraged a dysfunctional campus climate. When so many of our peers hold an arrogant attitude towards education, learning becomes more difficult for everyone; it’s hard to get good education in an unhealthy campus environment. Unfortunately, the university has failed to uphold a culture that celebrates and supports learning.
Fortunately, there is time for us to change course on this. Were the administration to change its attitude toward learning, we as students would too. I’m not holding my breath for the university to change its policy any time soon. But there is room for us as consumers to change our thinking about college.
We have to recognize spending early adulthood at a four-year university is not for everyone. And that’s OK. Despite a changing economy, there remains other fulfilling and economically viable career paths. Also, waiting to enter college until truly ready is both reasonable and healthy. UW should be a place where people from all walks of life feel welcome. But a campus culture that promotes learning, excellence and health is one where only those who truly want to be at the university come to take part.