Sunday, January 29th | 7 Shevat 5783

March 4, 2016 8:45 am

Ignorance: The True Cost of Higher Education

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avatar by Ruthie Blum

Vassar College. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Vassar College. Photo: Wiki Commons.

During several sleepless nights, watching loops of 24-hour news broadcasts devoted to the US presidential race, I noticed certain themes that otherwise might have escaped my attention. One was the claim that first-time voters are “too young to remember” the scandals surrounding former president Bill Clinton and wife Hillary’s behavior during the period that the couple occupied the White House.

This assertion was like a hidden key to unlocking another phenomenon related to Americans in the age group under discussion and the surrounding culture’s attitude toward them. I am talking about the latest “radical chic” on campuses across the country — fever-pitched anti-Israel activism.

At both Ivy League and state schools, accusing the Jewish state of war crimes against the “oppressed Palestinian people” is the current ticket to peer acceptance. Campaigning for boycott, divestment and sanctions against “Israeli apartheid” is so popular that anything from complaints about high tuition and student loans to criticism of professors and guest lecturers has become part and parcel of the movement.

The response of university administrators and faculty has been to cower and hold meetings with student-body representatives to discuss free speech. So rampant has this scenario become that alumni are starting to wake up and take measures, among them threats to cease donating money to their alma maters.

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Meanwhile, parents of the kids spending what should be valuable time at institutions of higher learning by planning rallies, creating installations of mock Israeli checkpoints and denouncing dissenting views continue to fork out exorbitant sums of money for degrees that won’t even land most of their children proper jobs.

Parents of the kids who feel threatened or outcast for supporting Israel — and even find swastikas and Hitler graffiti in their dorms — also dole out the tens of thousands of dollars it costs for the privilege of graduating from a name-brand school.

Reports of this worrisome trend bring me back to my own college days in the 1970s. Past the Vietnam War-era sit-ins of the draft-dodging hippies, and after the Yom Kippur War that devastated Israel, I happened to hit a period of less hysteria on campus. Still, at the University of Chicago, like everywhere else, students with causes handed out leaflets and attended demonstrations of one sort or another. These usually focused on feminism and gay rights; and there might have been some pro-Israel students who lived together in kosher houses. But I was never involved in any of it.

One reason for my lack of participation was that I found ideologues to be as tiresome as they were humorless — even though I held strong political positions I was not ashamed to verbalize, in spite of their unpopularity.

Another, far more pressing, cause for my shunning any such activity was homework — endless, mind-boggling, terrifying assignments with looming deadlines imposed by teachers not prone to being generous with good grades.

The self-disciplined students I knew were a source of deep envy. They were the ones who didn’t wait until the last minute to write their papers or study for exams. They spent hours in between and after classes at the library, only rewarding themselves with a beer or a movie when they had completed their own quota to satisfaction.

The rest of us used beer and movies to avoid facing the reams of material that instilled the worst kind of terror in our guts — the fear of failure. It had been made clear to us upon our arrival that this was not going to be anything like high school. The message was that we may have been accepted to the illustrious college by the grace of God, SAT scores, teacher recommendations, personal essays and interviews, but now that we were here, there would be no resting on our laurels. We were going to have to prove ourselves worthy through the work we produced.

One professor returned the first papers we all submitted — without having read them — for exceeding the number of typed pages he had specified and ignoring the rule of a single space after a comma and a double space after a period. These were the days before computers, when we banged out our words on manual (or electric, if we were lucky) typewriters, using carbon paper for copies and white-out on mistakes. Having homework returned for being typed unsatisfactorily meant having to start over from scratch. We were incensed, but nobody was around to comfort us for having been dealt such an unjust blow.

I do not need to question how these kids today have the time or energy to be battling Israel while trying to complete a university degree. Judging by the illiterate way in which they blog for college publications and write posts on social media, the answer is there in black and white. If they have any homework at all, either they aren’t doing it, or their teachers (whose own ability to produce a comprehensible, grammatically correct, properly punctuated sentence is dubious, at best) are grading them on their politics, not knowledge of any subject, least of all the history of the Jewish state.

One does not need an education to be eligible to vote in a democracy. But it is extremely telling that the “best and brightest” — those whose formal educations provide them a mantle of respectability — are not expected to be versed in anything that happened before their time. Indeed, if they are “too young to remember” the White House of the Clintons, both of whom are still alive, one shudders to imagine their approach to George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.

Why, though, is it not taken for granted that they should be reading about these matters?

The answer, alas, is that though these students have everything at their fingertips, including electronic devices with all the world’s information available at the tap of a button, no demands are made of them, least of all intellectual ones.

Ignorance is not bliss. It has, however, become an expensive commodity.

Ruthie Blum is the web editor of The Algemeiner.

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