Slouching Toward the Therapeutic University: Part 2

Tom Wood

Part 1

The consumer orientation of the modern American university

Perhaps the most fundamental aspect in the U.S. of what Ecclestone and Hayes have called the therapeutic university is the consumer orientation of the new American university. In the new university, the overriding aim is customer satisfaction. Give the customer what the customer wants. Proceed as far as one can on the assumption that the customer is always right.  

In the consumer-oriented university, the aim is to please, coddle, and cater to the customer—in this case, the student and his or her parents. Students are regarded like the guests of resort management or hospitality services companies, rather than as members of rigorous institutions of learning. This development can be seen most clearly in the most expensive and selective private colleges and universities, but these institutions tend to be the ideal and model that the others would like to emulate as far as possible. All institutions of higher education attempt to do the same thing, to the extent that they can afford it.

Running a college or university in this way has proved to be a very expensive proposition financially. In December of last year I posted an article to CASNET by Eric Gibson, the Leisure & Arts features editor at the Wall Street Journal (“Pleading Poverty: Colleges Want Parents to Foot the Bill for Their Largess”). The article, which begins with remarks about falling endowments, argues that the hardships created by the financial crisis will force the elite private universities to reconsider business as usual.

Gibson was shocked by the picture of current college life he got from visiting a number of colleges his son was considering:

I’ve been wide-eyed on some of my visits, struck by the extent to which being a student today resembles living at Versailles, where Louis XIV’s every whim was so thoroughly accommodated that there was even a Superintendent of the King’s Furniture.

The same point has been developed at greater length by the novelist P.F. Kluge. Kluge graduated from Kenyon College in 1964 and returned some years ago to teach creative writing there. He has written about the changes he has observed there in his Alma Mater, which was published by Addison Wesley in 1995. Kluge has also summarized some of his observations in a valuable article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that is available free to non-subscribers (“Kamp Kenyon’s Legacy: Death by Tinkering”). Kluge sees Kenyon evolving in the direction of a “therapeutic kibbutz.” He also sees a conflict between the obligation to educate students and the demand to accommodate students in order to attract them to the college in the first place. Giving divided attention to both concerns leads to a hybrid creature, what he calls “Kenyon College” and “Kamp Kenyon”:
I didn’t coin the latter phrase or its spelling; the notion of Kamp Kenyon has been around 10 years, at least. It refers to that aspect of the institution that lets students get away with a lot, that coddles and gets conned. Kamp Kenyon deals with campus life and student problems: drugs, date rape, harassment, gender bias, dyslexia, dysfunction, angst, anger, homesickness, seasickness. It seems that bringing more counselors, mediators, and advisers to our campus in Gambier, Ohio, and to other higher-education institutions around the country, is a growth industry. These people are thoughtful and hard-working, and much of what they do has developed in response to real problems. Yet I wonder whether their initially useful presence does not signal the piecemeal mutation of Kenyon College, and other institutions, into a therapeutic kibbutz—ultimately compromising the purpose of a college education. 

Although Kenyon is about challenging and testing students, Kamp Kenyon is about serving clients. Kenyon keeps students busy; Kamp Kenyon makes them happy. Kenyon has rules, to which it makes rare exceptions; Kamp Kenyon has excuses, which then become rules. Kenyon trades in requirements; Kamp Kenyon trades in appeals, which become precedents, which become entitlements. 


Kamp Kenyon’s overly accommodating approach continues through the end of the year. For example, with final examinations and papers approaching, April is considered a stressful time for students, especially those who have blown off the first 10 weeks of the semester. They’re in a bind, all right. But wait a minute! The student-affairs office now annually sends an all-campus e-mail message inviting administrators and faculty members to offer “comfort zones” for pressured students. A prize is awarded to the most ingenious entry. Last year, one office had a tableful of snacks and soft drinks. Outside a campus building, someone offered Popsicles from a cooler to passing students. Just next door, someone else had arranged for local masseuses to give in-chair back rubs to overburdened undergrads.


If a student has problems, I get an e-mail message—an issues-gram, I call it—from student affairs telling me that so-and-so is going through a bad patch, and my forbearance would be appreciated during this troubled time. What is the problem? I wonder, but in vain. Something like doctor-patient privilege has come between me and my student.


It’s hard to say how it happened, when it started, who’s to blame. But it comes down to this: In our attempts to attract students to Kenyon and keep them there, will the college itself become less worth attending?

Similar reflections led John Smith (a pseudonym of a professor at a liberal arts college) to write “I’m Leaving,” which appeared in Inside Higher Ed on October 31 of last year:

After too many years at this job (I am in my mid-40s), I have grown to question higher education in ways that cannot be rectified by a new syllabus, or a sabbatical, or, heaven forbid, a conference roundtable. No, my troubles with this treasured profession are both broad and deep, and they begin with a fervent belief that most of today’s college students, especially those that come to college straight from high school, are unnecessarily coddled. Professors and administrators seek to “nurture” and “engage” and they are doing so at the expense of teaching. The result: a discernable and precipitous decline in the quality of college students. More of them come to campus with dreadful study habits. Too few of them read for pleasure. Too many drink and smoke excessively. They are terribly ill-prepared for four years of hard work, and most dangerously, they do not think that college should be arduous. Instead they perceive college as an overnight recreation center in which they exercise, eat, and in between playing extracurricular sports, they carry books around. If a professor is lucky, the books are being skimmed hours before class. 

How do I know that my concerns are not unique to my employer, or my classroom? My students are brutally honest – they tell me with candor and without shame that their peers think of college as a four year cruise without a destination.


Rampant careerism

In “Berkeley in the Sixties,” I discussed the careerism and vocationalism that has dominated campus life since at least the 1980s. As I pointed out there, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, who has studied campus life in the U.S. since its inception in her Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present, argues that careerism and vocationalism have dominated campus life ever since World War II, except for a brief interlude in the Sixties. And it all seems to be getting worse.

More recently, Jay Epstein has inveighed against the same phenomenon, which he observed over a period of many years teaching at Northwestern:

I did my teaching at Northwestern University, where most of the students had what I came to regard as “the habits of achievement.” They did the reading, most of them could write a respectable paper, many of them talked decently in response to my questions. They made it difficult for me to give them less than a B for the course. But the only students who genuinely interested me went beyond being good students to become passionate ones. Their minds, I could tell, were engaged upon more than merely getting another high grade. The number of such students was remarkably small; if I had to pin it down, I should say they comprised well under 3 percent, and not all of them received A’s from me.


The attack on the principles of free speech and free conscience

This has always been one of the principal concerns of the NAS. We have worked hard with our ally in the field, FIRE, to defend the principles of academic freedom, free speech, and personal conscience in the university. It has been an uphill battle, since the view is now widespread, particularly among administrators, that students must not be offended or made uncomfortable by ideas or the expression of ideas. Sometimes this view has been applied in a one-sided, partisan fashion in the interest of political correctness, as it was recently in the dorms at the University of Delaware (a cause célèbre that my “Communitarian ResLife Movement” covered in detail.) But this need not be partisan or limited by political correctness to be pernicious. It is pernicious even if it is applied to all parties equally, independently of political considerations. Carried to its logical conclusion, it leads to the view that students must not be challenged by new and unfamiliar ideas at all—which would be the death of the university and of liberal education.

Students should be challenged in their college years by a barrage of new and unfamiliar ideas, even if those ideas offend them or make them feel uncomfortable. Free speech and free thought must not be restricted on campuses out of allegiance to a false sense of campus community. After all, a university is a community of scholars, and a community of scholars requires the free interplay of ideas, even very controversial ones. In an article published in July 27, 2005 (“The Authoritarian Communitarian Impulse”), which I quoted in Part 4 of my “Communitarian ResLife Movement”), David French put it this way:

The phrase that stood out to me—“the elusive ideal of community”—reminds me of the impulse that animates many of the abuses that FIRE fights. From the Shippensburg speech code to Washington State’s heckler’s veto, university attempts to foster feelings of “community” often veer from exhortation to coercion. The desire to create a “close-knit campus” is understandable and—in many ways—laudable. Yet these attempts often collide not merely with the law, but also with the student culture itself. There is very little reason to believe that the modern secular campus will be any different from polarized red/blue America—a contentious, pluralistic melting pot of different ideas, religions, races, and ideologies. In such a circumstance, “community” often means “peaceful coexistence” more than it does “love and harmony.” This reality can be particularly frustrating for student life administrators who often define their job as creating the very kind of harmonious community that students say they want but then do very little to create. Consequently, it becomes easier to understand why these administrators are so tempted to use the institutional power at their disposal, both to coerce communitarian actions and attitudes and to punish those who threaten the community spirit that administrators spend so much time trying to build.


Narcissism, the self-esteem movement, and grade inflation

The therapeutic notion of education with its emphasis on emotional sensitivity, sensitivity training, and the development of “emotional intelligence,” is connected with the self-esteem movement in education and what historian and sociologist Christopher Lasch has called the Culture of Narcissism in his 1979 book of that title. On this view, it is wrong or at least questionable to challenge people or make them comfortable with unfamiliar ideas or ideas with which they disagree. That might threaten their self-esteem or personal identities.

The self-esteem movement and the culture of narcissism are probably factors as well in the move (mostly by administrators and student affairs professionals) to restrict free speech and free expression on campuses. They also appear to be connected with the phenomenon of grade inflation and growing resistance on the part of many students to being rated or evaluated in any way at all.

Many faculty members are finding now that students in their classes believe that they have a “right” to their own opinions, quite independently of questions of truth or falsity, right or wrong. Peter Sacks discusses this ominous cultural phenomenon is his Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America. Last December, I posted some excerpts from readers’ comments on this book at They bear repeating here:

[Sacks] attributes some of the negative attitudes he encounters to the versions of “postmodernism” and such that have filtered down to the student level. I tend to agree. Things were already headed in that direction when I was teaching, and what I have heard since then leads me to believe they’ve gotten worse. For many students, there is no “truth,” no one can possibly be more intelligent or more learned than anyone else, and it is ridiculous and offensive for anyone, including a teacher, to pass judgment on other people by something like giving them grades for their work. Indeed, even for many “educators” (using the term loosely), college is far more about providing therapy and boosting the self-esteem of the students and indoctrinating them with some nebulous version of cultural relativism than it is about traditional notions of learning. One of the worst things you can do to a student—sure to raise hackles now since it’s so unheard of—is to state or imply that they’re wrong about something. All opinions are equal, after all, and their opinions are just as “true for them” as yours are “true for you.” Apparently it’s better that students be socialized to be thin-skinned ignoramuses than that they have “Western logic” and “linear thinking” imposed on them.


[Sacks] draws a pretty convincing picture of a generation in which skepticism and critical thought is replaced on the one hand by paranoia and distrust, and by credulousness on the other (e.g., belief in UFOs, astrology, etc.), in which “truth” is merely a social construct, everyone is entitled to succeed (where success is defined by standard of living), and in which anti-intellectualism is a virtue.

Sacks realizes that simply to adjust the role of the teacher as above isn’t enough, however. For him the key question is the survival of higher education as a meaningful institution in our culture against the “onslaught of hyperconsumerism and amusement.”

Peer-led student discussion groups. In“The Marriage of Affirmative Action and Transformative Education” (March 27, 2008), I drew attention to a relatively new pedagogical innovation on campuses: the peer-led or student-led discussion group. Such groups were pioneered by the Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. IGR has promoted peer-led discussion groups with the claim that they help students communicate across the lines of race and identity, and that they improve the climate on campus on racial and ethnic issues. By providing evidence of the value of racial diversity on campuses, it is argued, they also provide an important rationale for racial preferences in admissions. Though IGR has emphasized the diversity issue in the development of its own program, there is no reason why such groups have to be limited to this issue. The real innovation lies in the creation of credit-earning courses in the university that are not taught by faculty members and that lie outside the normal parameters for courses in a university. As I pointed out in my posting:

IGR currently describes itself as a “social justice education program,” and as a “joint venture of the College of Literature, Science, and Arts [LSA], and the Division of Student Affairs,” … [but] “It isn’t easy to envisage how this “joint venture” or “full partnership” between the academic College and the Division of Student Affairs actually works in practice. IGR is not listed as an academic unit in the College of LSA, though it is listed as one of the LSA Dean’s Areas and Non-Instructional Units.

Most programs in the Dean’s Areas and Non-Instructional Units at U Michigan are temporary programs. These are usually experimental or innovative courses that are taught under the auspices of the Dean’s office until they find a home in an established department on campus.

IGR, as it turns out, has been looking for a department home on the Ann Arbor campus for over a decade. This might suit the pedagogues of the peer-led discussion group movement just fine. Such programs bypass the faculty senate. This makes it that much easier to introduce a new kind of pedagogy into the academy. University administrations are likely to be much more sympathetic to such programming than faculty senates. Such student-led discussion classes do not value critical thinking or the transfer of knowledge, valuing instead the “transformative” effect of applying techniques of group therapy to the academy.

Even if one grants that there are many students who enjoy and appreciate the experience, what business does this sort of thing have in the academy? Not everything that could possibly have value to a student belongs there. Peer-led students groups that focus on students’ lives and experiences, without the discipline of critical thought or mooring in the writings of the great minds of the past and present, don’t belong in the university. But such classes are a natural fit for the therapeutic university. As Ecclestone and Hayes pointed out in The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education:

Work like Mortiboys’ on the importance of the emotions will encourage university bureaucracies to promote policies that undermine academic life. Emotional freedom is a safe option for bureaucracies because it gives individuals and groups the right to express themselves in an uncritical climate but all they talk about is their feelings.


Helicopter parenting

Another important element of the overall picture is the advent of the helicopter parent—a colloquialism that has been coined to describe many of the over-involved parents of today’s college students. In the past, one of the advantages of the four-year residential college experience, particularly if it involved attending a college at some distance from home, is that it enabled students to mature as individuals free from direct parental influence. Helicopter parenting impedes this valuable experience.

Sue Shellenbarger, in an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Tucking the Kids In—in the Dorm: Colleges Ward Off Overinvolved Parents” (July 28, 2005), described the phenomenon this way:

A number of colleges and universities are having to assign full-time staffers or forming entire new departments to field parents’ calls and email. Others hold separate orientations for parents, partly to keep them occupied and away from student sessions.


At the University of Georgia, students who get frustrated or confused during registration have been known to interrupt their advisers to whip out a cellphone, speed-dial their parents and hand the phone to the adviser, saying, “Here, talk to my mom,” says Richard Mullendore, a University of Georgia professor and former vice president, student affairs, at the universities of Georgia and Mississippi. The cellphone, he says, has become “the world’s longest umbilical cord.”

It was a predictable development that the consumer-oriented university should now include, not just students, but parents as well, as these are in most cases heavily involved in footing the very high bills of today’s college education. Today’s parents also want to protect their college kids from harm, even if that means making it more difficult for them to learn from their mistakes. Although this kind of protectiveness is more likely than not to make it more difficult for students to develop into mature adults, helicopter parents see this kind of parenting as simply a matter of protecting their investment or acting like any other consumer.

Helicopter parenting also intrudes into professor-student relations at colleges. I have spoken to several professors and former professors who have told me that dealing with parents is more of a hassle now than dealing with students. Professors today, according to these friends, get calls from students’ parents asking them to change grades they have given.

Cell phones threaten to undermine the educational experience of college in other ways. At U.C. Berkeley, where I am often on the campus, students pour out of their classes armed with cell phones and devices for text messaging and twittering—iPhones, Blackberries and all the rest. To judge from appearances, this seems to be creating the opposite effect on campus from what one might hope for from the new technology. It seems to be creating a ghettoized, insular world, in which personal communications are limited to a quite restricted circle of friends and acquaintances. While the technology is global, the application is very local, if one can judge by the cell phone conversations I overhear on college campuses. The technology is not being used to explore new worlds of the mind and spirit, but instead to make sure that college remains a comfortable extension of the already known and familiar—a continuation without break for the old, known self, rather than a voyage of real self-discovery. 

The new technology, which could be liberating in so many ways, is being used for small and narrow purposes. It, too, has found a comfortable niche in the contemporary university. It forms an essential part of the “Kamp Kenyonization” of the university. The diminished concept of academic relevance and meaningfulness implicit in the notion of student-centered education appears to have blossomed with the advent of the cell phone.

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