This commentary was written by CBSNews.com intern Jaclyn Schiff.
"Extracurricular activities galore," declares the George Washington University's Web site. The medium sized private university gloats that 92 percent of the seniors have "been involved in at least one employment or internship experience while attending classes."
Brandeis University, a small east coast college, similarly boasts that its 3,158 undergraduates can choose from 175 clubs and organizations. Colleges around the country use statistics like these to woo prospective students.
But are these really numbers to brag about?
Mark Twain's famous words – "I never let my schooling interfere with my education" – have become the mantra of college students across the country today. As a group, we are not just allowing classes to interfere with our broader education, but we are pursuing this varied experience at the expense of our schooling and ironically, in the process, narrowing the broad experience we seek.
Students are drawn to certain schools for specific reasons. Whether it's the partying and Greek life at big state universities or the professional opportunities and internships that often surround urban private colleges, the result is the same – a campus filled with people that play their "fulltime student" roles in their spare time, between internships, club meetings and other activities.
My sense is that this is a fairly accurate description of the collegiate academic experience for many students around the country. I attend a private university in Washington, D.C. and numerous friends that attend very different sorts of schools – everything from private suburban schools in the South to large state colleges in the Midwest – agree with my impression based on three and half years of study: College just is not a very academic place.
Conventional wisdom tells us, "All work and no play make John a dull boy." This familiar saying alludes to the importance of balance, a concept that seems totally forgotten amongst my generation's quest for comprehensive life experience.
While I think we do an excellent job at understanding the limitations of "armchair observation" and the Ivory Tower as primary means of understanding the increasingly interconnected world, perhaps we've downplayed traditional education's importance too much. Maybe we are missing out on some "stuff" in the midst of our quest.
That "stuff" is academic rigor. I suspect that there's probably something to be gained by spending some time struggling to understand and explore Kant's Categorical Imperative – but since this is something that everyone (myself included) seems to lose out on, I can't say for sure. The campus environment too rarely caters to people that want to just learn for the sake of intellectual curiosity.
Each semester the procedure is the same; course content often seems promising but rarely actualizes into class sessions that examine the material with the sort of depth that would elevate subject matter from interesting to stimulating. Because students at my university appear to be driven more by career aspirations than they are by serious intellectual curiosity, this results in a "pre-professional" breed.
At other institutions, students' motivations may be different but the pervasive attitude is shared across campuses: time in the classroom is seen as a means to an end; the learning process itself is not seen as inherently valuable and as a result the caliber of class discussion suffers.
Professors also perpetuate the problem (perhaps unknowingly). Sensitive lecturers, all too aware that students are so busy with everything but their courses, are often understanding of this predicament and so this translates into accepting a lot of mediocrity.
Even at institutions that one might suspect attract larger groups of serious academics, the reality is the same – most students just aren't engaged in their disciplines. A friend, a senior at the prestigious Amherst College in Amherst, MA, concurs: "I think the problem exists here: there's a small hardcore [group] of students that really seek to challenge themselves for learning's sake… and they basically number one in ten."
He went on to suggest that while indeed students and professors perpetuate the problem, the nature of what college has become can virtually predict students' lack of focus on academics.
"College is an outmoded concept. The ideal of the past of a college as an institution of learning is extinct. Today, rather, college is a necessary step that one must take to do a huge array of things," he said.
"Instead of the apprenticeship, today we have colleges. Except, unlike the apprenticeship, you hardly learn anything related to your chosen profession in college," he said.
At the end of four years the result is mediocre academics. I'm not admonishing the supplementary experiences students have and suggest we hole up in the library for the duration of college. I am just wondering if perhaps we can harmonize the work and the play a little more and at least try our hands at Soc. 101 – Classical Sociology Theory, to complement our future ambitions.
College is supposed to be a testing ground for ideas, a safe place where students can pursue any intellectual question, lose themselves in alternative lifestyles, and most importantly, experiment. If academic institutions have simply become a convenient name to adorn a diploma, and a venue to sleep at nights in between other activities, then perhaps we should be more honest about that. Instead of misleading future college students, perhaps universities should more appropriately call themselves Hotel – as in the Hotel of Illinois or Emory Hotel.
Jaclyn Schiff is a second semester senior, studying international affairs when she is not at her internship at CBSNews.com.
By Jaclyn Schiff