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Universities and the Dangers of Docility


We need docile teachers and students, those unafraid of the fundamental questions and the highest things: those who want truth.

Despite their stellar global rankings, American universities are surrounded by a dominant mood of anxiety. For those who study, teach, or work in the university, innovative research and international prestige often take a backseat to worries about getting in, staying in, and paying for higher education.

Many students and their parents wonder if college is worth the cost, worry about poor educational results, note the uneasy state of campus politics, or struggle to cope with heavy loans and gloomy postgraduate prospects. Further, a significant number of institutions may simply not be able to keep their lights on for much longer.

Even if these anxieties are overblown, they are nevertheless strongly felt. In part, they explain our nation’s obsession with college rankings, endowments, test results, and selectivity. As Mark Shiffman notes, students afflicted “with a desperate compulsion for competitive advantage . . . rack up majors, minors, certificates, credentials, and internships to keep them running for what they feel to be an ever more elusive success. They’re driven by fear.” Or, as William Deresiewicz commented in a now-famous essay, it is the winners of this competitive race who are often the most “anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose; trapped in a bubble of privilege, headed meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

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