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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Are Colleges Becoming Too Trendy?