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Are Colleges Becoming Too Trendy?

I recently returned from speaking at a university conference. While on the campus, I chatted with some students who told me what classes they’d taken that school year. The student leaders came from various colleges, but I noticed something both familiar and intriguing about the course titles they took:

  • Getting Dressed
  • What if Harry Potter is Real?
  • Zombies in Popular Media
  • Gaga for (Lady) Gaga: Sex, Gender and Identity

My first thought was—where in the world were these classes when I was attending college? My second thought, however, was—are you kidding me? Is this really a subject that represents the rigor and philosophical depth of an undergraduate course? Can students really enroll in these classes and get college credit?

So, I’d like you to leave me a comment. Let’s start a conversation.

There’s no doubt that colleges and universities are being forced to re-think their industry. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, college enrollment actually dropped for the second year in a row, nationwide. The 2014 report revealed the drop was by about a half million students each of the last two years. College debt continues to be an issue, as do skyrocketing tuition costs. More students are taking other paths.

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So, I started wondering: are classes like these…

  • Learning From YouTube (Pitzer College)
  • Philosophy and Star Trek (Georgetown University)
  • Arguing with Judge Judy (U.C. Berkeley)
  • How to Watch Television (Montclair State University)
  • Elvis as Anthology (University of Iowa)
  • The Science of Superheroes (U.C. Irvine)
  • Invented Languages: Klingon and Beyond (The University Of Texas)
  • God, Sex and Chocolate: Desire and the Spiritual Path (U.C. San Diego)

…really just course titles to keep prospective students engaged in higher education? Are we simply dumbing down the worldview-shaping experience that the university is supposed to offer? It appears to me one of two options is occurring on college campuses:

  1. We are dumbing down the college experience for students.

In an effort to attract today’s student, who knows a lot about Taylor Swift, Game of Thrones, Drake, and Nicky Manaj, we have catered to them and to their interests. God knows we don’t want to lose our customers, so we talk about Lady Gaga instead of Socrates. School is more about fitting into pop culture than shaping history.

  1. We choose titles that are relevant but still take students deeper.

Perhaps these course titles are merely the lure on the fishing line. Students enroll in the class on Harry Potter, and the professor takes them into robust, intellectual conversations and learning after all. The title is the bait to catch the fish.

This is a difficult challenge for faculty and staff.

I do believe teachers must work to stay relevant. We must understand the world around us and be able to interpret what is happening. We must communicate to our students that what we teach in the classroom is birthed out of an understanding of the culture they live in today. After all, they’ll soon graduate and return to it.

At the same time, being hip is a poor goal. While we must begin where they are, we must push them to go deeper. Relevant teachers use what is cultural to say what is timeless. We don’t help students mature if all we do is become like them. They need more from us than superficial and artificial. When we reflect on the origin of higher education, wasn’t its purpose to:

  • Enable students to be critical thinkers?
  • Inspire them to learn and be life-ling learners?
  • Study great books to gain historical context?
  • Shape the worldview of the student?
  • Cultivate leaders for our society?

Can We Be Both Timely and Timeless?

I’m concerned that we don’t lose the “timelessness” of education in the name of staying “timely” in our culture. No teacher wants to appear old fashioned or out-of-date. Yet, I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. Many of today’s students hunger to understand their heritage, to connect the dots from their past in order to understand their purpose. They want meaning. Many long for an “ancient future.” Is it possible to provide both of these elements? Can we convince students that we are privy to today’s culture and furnish them with timeless philosophical truths that leaders in literature, philosophy, math, science, and theology throughout history have afforded us? Dare we trade in Hippocrates for Harry Potter?

Context and Creativity

I continue to believe we must be intentional about developing young leaders on the campus. I believe this requires us to offer students both context and creativity.

  1. Context – This enables them to understand what’s gone before and why. Can we marry current events with history, showing how they connect?
  1. Creativity – This offers them the liberty to develop new thoughts and ideas. Can we foster an environment that encourages them to think progressively?

What do you think? Can we be both timely and timeless?


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9 Comments

  1. Thamara on October 29, 2015 at 6:40 am

    I believe we can and should be timely and timeless, but we have to be careful not to compromise the rigour of the objectives of higher education. If we want solid training that equips students for life, we must challenge their minds to aim for way more than trends.

  2. Sarah on October 29, 2015 at 7:09 am

    This is just another symptom in the “I need to be entertained at all times” movement. I am a really good teacher and feel that I have a lot to share with my high school students, but the demand to entertain them and make everything fun and fast-moving has caused me to rethink how long I am going to be able to stay in this profession. I am not a video game or their favorite sitcom and I really can’t keep up with the new brain research that says we must simulate these things in the classroom in order to remain relevant.

  3. Kay Camenisch on October 29, 2015 at 9:30 am

    Amen. Students today are not being taught enough about our history or about the rest of the world. (I recently learned of a junior in high school, who is taking advanced courses) and she had just learned where Europe is located.) In our over-balanced effort to be timely, we are reinforcing the traps of self-importance and self-centeredness and are thus moving toward self-destruction. Without learning how to reason and learning from our past, we limit our foundation from which to make decisions, especially if we are guided by emotional choices of what is most pleasurable to me. I am grateful for the students who are seeking substance, but am concerned about our future if the educational system doesn’t change..

  4. Mark Kalpakgian on October 29, 2015 at 1:00 pm

    The irony of great teaching is that it is both timely and timeless. The goal of education is primarily to lead students to understand, communicate and lean towards what is true, good, and beautiful. These transcendentals never go out of fashion and are relevant in every age, culture, career and society. When educators focus solely on career preparation, they miss the timeless essentials which comprise the very best education and which never go out of fashion.

  5. Chris McLain on October 29, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    The danger of teaching the trendy in real time is the subject matter is still in a state of evolution, therefore analysis and conclusions cannot be made accurately.

  6. Dr Denny Coates on November 2, 2015 at 8:32 am

    Even courses focused on the professions fall short of preparing the students for careers. They’re too theoretical, too academic. Young adults have too much to learn after they show up for work. As for the other courses, well you shined a bright light on that. My oldest son has a Ph.D. in business administration that wasn’t a big deal to those who hired him. My youngest son dropped out of college because the professors weren’t focusing on skills he needed and he felt he knew more about the subject than they did. Today he draws a six-figure salary based on skills and experience he earned on his own. I knew a law professor that was being paid $250,000/year to teach one course a week, because he had published a book that no one reads. He laughed about it. I didn’t. And now they’re pandering to helicopter parents. It’s disgusting. The main thing that’s higher about higher education are the salaries and costs. But try to change things. Good luck.

  7. Becky on November 2, 2015 at 9:33 am

    I believe these classes CAN be relevant but I am not confident they are. I have worked with teens for over 30 years and the current group, while extremely intelligent cannot think nor can they remember 3 simple instructions. I’m not talking at risk teens either. I work with teens from private schools and IB programs. I think college is on a marketing campaign in response to pressure from both students and parents. Students who know what career they want seem to have little interest in expanding their minds by taking things like ethics, philosophy, history of religion, etc. I had a former student take a class called Extreme Weather and another called Growing Fruits and Vegetables. He is now in law school at NYC. Is it all about boosting the GPA? Some of my former students who are RAs say students come to them asking about the easiest classes they can take. I hope I am wrong but I confess I am very worried.

  8. kenneyr on November 12, 2015 at 6:26 am

    Gaining the education is always in trend. That is why a lot of students try to enter colleges, universities to get profound knowledges.

  9. Tim Elmore on February 2, 2016 at 11:42 am

    Thanks to each of you for these comments. So far, it seems most of us agree about the need to be relevant to the students and the skills they will need upon graduation, but (at the same time) we must help them embrace those timeless virtues and skills that have always been necessary.

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Are Colleges Becoming Too Trendy?