Dear Mr. Kristof,
I recently read your op-ed on the “The Dangers of Echo Chambers on College Campuses.” Many things trouble me about your piece but for now I wish to address the caricature of higher education that undergirds your entire argument. Oberlin, no disrespect intended, is not typical. The notion that college campuses are “liberal bubbles” demonstrates a profound disconnect between public opinion and what a college campus actually looks like today.
The students who populate these campuses are clearly not what your piece suggests as a study on higher education reveals: “The National Center for Education Statistics reports that of the 17.6 million people enrolled in college in the fall of 2011, only 15 percent were attending a four-year college and living on campus. Thirty-seven percent were enrolled part time, and 32 percent worked full time…More than a third were over 25, and a quarter were over 30. By 2019, the percentage of those over 25 is expected to increase by more than 20 percent.”
In other words, the college campus of which you write is an outlier. It is not typical. The new traditional student is not eighteen, probably commutes to school, may not attend full-time, and would find the college campus you describe to be quite alien.
These statistics provide a powerful counter, in fact, to the very dangers of insularity that you decry. Diversity is not simply political or ideological. It is generational and experiential as well. When I look out at a classroom that includes a nineteen-year old, a thirty-ish year-old single mother putting herself through college, a returning veteran, and the handful of individuals who are over sixty and participate in a program my college offers that allows them to take classes for free, I don’t trouble myself much with a worry about a liberal bubble. Instead, I relish their discussions of the assigned material, as each brings to bear a distinctive perspective that educates the others. There is nothing “shrill” about this exchange. And if anything, I have observed in over twenty years of teaching at this institution, that their exposure to such a diversity of life experiences encourages a civility and open-mindedness that serves them well both inside and outside the classroom.
If anything, your caricature of higher education only serves to feed its critics on the right. When you accuse us of operating in liberal echo chambers and behaving shrilly and illiberally you endorse the image that conservatives have used to undermine and underfund institutions of higher learning.
The only cure it would seem, is to understand better what college campuses today are really like and to actually meet the students who populate them.
And so I end this letter with an invitation. And a sincere one at that. Come visit me and my students at an urban, public university where many of my students are Pell-eligible, working multiple jobs, raising families, all while being among the most engaged and diligent students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching. Spend a day or more with them, talking to them, listening to their experiences, and discovering more about what it’s like to be a typical college student today. I think you will be pleasantly surprised to find that they are not the straw men and women that your piece makes them out to be. They are living, breathing students who have a lot to teach you.