Confused about what college is about? Sex at BYU and Northwestern

This week we have had a fascinating set of stories emanating from two major U.S. universities, that make clear why our conceptions of college are muddled. Since many of my readers do not live in the U.S., I will briefly summarize these stories.

  1. BYU, a university run by and for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, suspended one of its star basketball players, (on a team headed for the national championship) because he had sex with his girlfriend.
  2. Mike Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern, had a live sex demonstration in his class on Human Sexuality.

How are these stories related? There has been much discussion of them, not necessarily in the same articles, but as they happened at the same time there have been some comparisons being made in various publications.

My connection to these stories is not too great, but as I was a member of Northwestern’s Psychology department, I am familiar with the Northwestern scene and with Mike Bailey. And, although it hardly makes me an expert on BYU, I did spend a few days there not long ago interacting with faculty and administrators, generally discussing education.

BYU has a strict honor code to which all students must adhere that stems from their church’s religious beliefs.

Northwestern is a more typical U.S. campus which means students come from everywhere and from every culture and all live together and interact with each other in the way that kids in their late teens and early 20’s who have no real supervision are likely to act.

As a professor, I always felt that kids should be kids, that they should enjoy sex and drugs and football if they like, but that it would be nice if they didn’t confuse those activities with getting an education. Alas, there is nothing I can do to change the idea that kids who are on their own for the first time should probably not be going to college. It would be far better if they got the partying out of their system beforehand and pursued serious education when they were ready to be more serious.

So, I am more in tune with BYU’s philosophy than with Northwestern’s only because I think university education is wasted on students who are pre-occupied with growing up and finding out who they are (and drinking excessively in the process.)

But, my view point is actually irrelevant to both of these stories.

The real issue behind these stories is determining the answer to the question “what is college really about?”

At BYU the answer is, one would suppose, preparing students to be productive citizens who live within the rules and philosophy of their particular community.

At Northwestern, the answer would be, one would suppose, the same, except the community is much broader with much more varied rules and options.

But, I can tell you, neither of these schools actually does this.

At BYU, when I spoke there, I chided them on copying, more or less verbatim, the curriculum offered at Harvard and Yale. One obvious reason that they do this is that their faculty have PhDs from such places, so they teach what they learned there. But, the goal of Harvard and Yale, is, pretty much, to produce scholars, and possibly to produce future leaders of the country.

BYU exists in a place and in a community that needs a much different approach to education. They are not producing the nation’s scholars, and while they may produce some national leaders (Mitt Romney comes to mind) that isn’t an everyday occurrence nor should it be their goal.

I think that BYU is right to teach, and to enforce, the rules of its particular world, but curiously they fail to do this, in that the university education they provide is more or less just the same as that offered everywhere else.

At Northwestern, the focus should be on producing people who can get jobs that exist in the real world and making creative people who can function well within that world. Yet, Northwestern emphasizes scholarly pursuits, and it offers up a smorgasbord of courses that allows students to pick and choose ones that seem like the most fun. Of course, Human Sexuality seems like fun. And, since the students actually do need to learn about sex, it makes sense to have such a course.

But that course exists along with thousands of others that are about random topics that fit into no coherent whole that might possibly enable students to have any idea of what they should do or can do after they graduate. Northwestern doesn't care that much about producing people who can go to work. They just let the faculty offer the courses that they want to teach.

Mike Bailey has been pushing the envelope on that for some time. He seems to like the ruckus he causes, and I personally don’t blame him for actually teaching what he is supposed to teach.

But, the fact is that he will be censured in some way for doing this because Northwestern, like most universities, is really about getting students to know things rather than getting students to do things.

The real problem in university education is that no one knows what it is really for any more. It used to be solely about making scholars. Now that the masses go to university in extraordinary numbers, university education is about appealing to the masses. This means providing entertaining courses and Mike Bailey, while he will likely get into trouble for it, has done just that.

BYU, on the other hand, has actual principles. They are not my principles but why should they be? They are at least trying to do more than entertain. At least they should be. But they offer the same stuff that Northwestern offers, more or less.

Perhaps it is time to re-think college education and ask what it is really there for and what students are actually supposed to gain from the experience. When we answer this question we might want to consider what they will actually do with what they have learned after they graduate.

Just a thought.

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