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September 23, 1987 - Image 74

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Text
Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 1987-09-23

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M Y T U R N l

Its Not a
Dream World

No longer is
college a time
for idealism; it
is becoming just
a time to acquire
marketable skills

BY JOHN BURKMAN Jr.
of NEWSWEEK, and near the end, somewhere be-
Last week I happened to be glancing over an old issue
tween Axthelm and Will, was a promo for NEWS-
WEEK ON CAMPUS. In the background of the ad,
fittingly, was a picturesque view of a campus. Never
has a single photo conveyed a more idyllic impression of
collegiate life. There were students lying in the grass, riding
bikes, strolling scenic paths-I could almost hear them dis-
cussing Romanticism or the Enlightenment. This, I thought,
was the way education was meant to be-pure, relaxed,
philosophical. My mind began to wander, and soon I saw
myself beneath one of the trees with a beautiful girl, reading
poetry and sipping wine. It was a balmy spring day...
Honk! Honk! Honk! Just as I was nearly consumed by my
reverie, the shrill, sickening sound of a passing fire engine
yanked me back to reality. Gone were the trees, the rolling
hills-even my lovely companion. In their place was a
crowded city sidewalk and next to it Forbes Avenue, the
bustling artery that bisects the campus of the University of
Pittsburgh. My daydream had become memory.
Pitt is located in the heart of a major metropolitan area.
No magazine seeking an attractive campus shot would come
here. But my suspicion is that conditions at Pitt are more
representative of those at the majority of American colleges
than the image depicted in the ad. Not that most colleges are
in urban areas, though quite a few come to mind. What I
suggestisthatthereistodayagapintheAmericanmentality
between the real and the ideal of college life. Higher educa-
tion has changed, but perceptions of it have not. For many in
the middle and upper classes, especially those who are well
educated, the word "college" brings to mind a rustic setting
similar to the one shown in NEWSWEEK-a scene somewhat
reminiscent of their college days.
Not long ago I listened sympathetically to a colleague on
our school paper as she complained about her father's insen-
sitivity. "He always tells me that my college days are the
best of my life," she said, "that I should relax and develop my
mind. And I don't know how things could get any worse."
On paper she doesn't seem like the kind of person who
would have reason to make such a comment. She's an excel-
lent student, involved in numerous activities and has a good
internship on campus; she is attractive enough to have been
a model. But her college life is not the bowl of cherries her
father believes it to be. She feels compelled to work day and
night to build up a resum6 that will give her a shot at a
56 NEWSWEEKONCAMPUS

decent job in journalism. Often she exhausts herself rushing
between classes, the newspaper office and her job.
Though stressful, her life is similar to her father's concep-
tion of the ideal collegiate experience in one important
respect: she is at least receiving a liberal-arts education.
That's more than thousands of others can say. In the last
decade, students have been specializing and subspecializing
in record numbers. As the number of B.A.'s in English and
the social sciences has fallen, degrees in engineering, com-
puter science and pharmacy have risen dramatically.
It is true that recent studies do suggest that many corpora-
tions, appalled by the inadequate verbal skills of technical
graduates, have begun to take a greater interest in students
with liberal-arts degrees, or at least in those who've taken
more than the skeletal contingent of liberal-arts courses
required by most schools. But so long as the average liberal-
arts graduate starts at a far lower salary than his engineer-
ing counterpart, specialization is likely to intensify.
This indicates a picture different from the one suggested
by the NEWSWEEK ON CAMPUS ad. In a way the function of
higher education has been redefined in light of utilitarian
contemporary values. No longer is college a time for ideal-
ism and self-development; rather, it is a time for acquiring
marketable skills. At Pitt, in the wake of a computer build-
up, our main building, the Cathedral of Learning, has been
cynically but accurately renamed the Cathedral of Earning.
In this sense, the image of a university in a city becomes a
powerful one. The crowded sidewalks, fast-food restaurants
and constant traffic represent the encroachment of the
hard, cold financial world upon the academic environment.
Commercialism and Academe become one and the same. No
aspect of college life can escape the onslaught of the business
community-not the curriculum, not even the campus.
Idyllic illusion: As it comes, then, to be dominated by a
mentality that sees a direct correlation between the college
degree and a job, the university will slowly cease to be the
sanctuary of learning it once was. But much of America is
unwilling to come to grips with this reality. Many insist
on harboring the illusion that the university remains fun-
damentally unchanged. For many, the idyllic photograph
of the NEWSWEEK ON CAMPUS ad accurately represents
college life.
Had NEWSWEEK ON CAMPUS used as a backdrop a room
full of computer terminals, readers would probably have
envisioned a business or technical school. Yet that is exactly
what many colleges have become, whatever the names of
degrees conferred. America continues to recognize techni-
cal graduates as though they were really college graduates.
To their credit, universities have not been completely
blind to this problem. In recent years many institutions
have strengthened liberal-arts requirements. But if a chem-
ical engineer now must take two semesters of English in-
stead of one and toss in a philosophy and/or a sociology
course, it doesn't much change things. The fact is, tens of
thousands of students are obtaining a skills-related as op-
posed to an ideas-related education.
In the short run, this trend seems acceptable; the United
States has remained a world'power largely because of the
accomplishments of its technological community. But in the
long run, such a strategy may be unsound. The United
States is raising a generation increasingly out of touch with
its literature, its history and its heritage-a generation that
doesn't know or perhaps even care what it means to be
American. Today's graduates may someday lead America
scientifically, but they are not likely to lead it culturally.
John Burkman Jr. is a senior, double-majoring in history
and French, at the University of Pittsburgh.

4

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SEPTEMBER 1987

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