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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Students Could Get More than a Sheepskin for their College Years

For nearly 9 million students, another college year begins. For many of these students, the year is a tedious trip down memorization lane leading toward a diploma and, they hope, a job. College administrators and teachers go through their practiced motions of processing their students with the maximum of routine instruction and the minimum of educational enlightenment.

College presidents, chosen for their fund-raising and public relations skills, find neither thinking nor community leadership congenial to their missions. The raising of funds invites the pursuit of the bland. This is a style tolerated by most alumni groups, whose demands lie mostly on the athletic coaches, and demanded by boards of trustees preoccupied with their daily business careers.

Of course, there are exceptions to these general observations among students, teachers, administrators and even college presidents. But, most often, these standouts are solo practitioners remote from one another and unattached to any movement for campus change. Sadly, no broad movement exists to provide students with curriculum opportunities for developing their skills as free citizens and contributing their knowledge and understanding to the society around them. In these stressful times, no educational philosophy is responding to basic educational needs of students or providing them with broader horizons to excite their dedication and sense of purpose.

The academic world, said Dwight MacDonald, is a place “where committees accumulate and thought decays.” The big question this season at some colleges is whether to follow Harvard and have more required courses and fewer electives–scarcely a surrogate for intellectual reappraisal of teaching approaches.

The condition of university research is little better. Increasingly, campus research is defined externally by government and corporate grants and contracts. Status and influence within a university hierarchy has become a function of grantsmanship. Smaller colleges without such funding view themselves as poor cousins striving to emulate rather than developing their own unfettered creativity.

Outside media coverage of campus activities is focused 99 percent on students’ football, basketball, and other physical prowess. Too often, winning teams become the measure of campus pride and public identification. What, for example, do millions of people think of first when they hear the names Notre Dame or Penn State? Media coverage of students using their minds is devoted mainly to a mnemonic agility on quiz shows.

The situation is reversible. Genuine change can start when students begin viewing themselves more grandly as valuable contributors to society. Not many Americans are in the position of having the time, the tools, and the freedom to investigate and understand society’s problems and solutions. Students can do these things and get a better education at the same time.

Just illustratively, chemistry and biology students could test local drinking water and report the results to the community–a project that is scientifically challenging and ethically provoking. Or, social science students could produce profiles of their senators, representatives or other elected officials and make them available to interested groups and libraries for a more informed citizenry.

The New York Public Interest Research Group (5 Bookman St., New York, N.Y. 10038), which is financed and run by college students throughout New York state, already has completed similar projects. They will gladly respond to students inquiring from other states for suggestions and materials.

Students will continue to be wasting assets until they throw off the prolonged adolescent shackles that both campus and culture have forged for them. Learning how to educate themselves within and outside the campus context and viewing themselves as a potentially major force in America in their capacity as student-citizens are good first motivators.

While students in numerous dictatorships overseas are struggling on the ramparts for their country’s freedoms, too many students in the U.S. fail to use and indeed are frequently bored by the civic and educational opportunities our constitution and laws afford them.

My suggestion to college students who choose to view their own significance highly is to bend your courses and extracurricular work toward our country’s needs for improvement. Do your research at city hall, in court records, in interviews, in factories, farms and stores and within the ecology of your region. You’ll find your school’s library and laboratories more useful that way. And you’ll see yourself develop after college into effective citizens able to think and willing to act upon the great issues of your day.