Actually, universities have always been a little like daycare

I can’t remember the last time I went this long without posting anything to my blog. It’s not as if I have been that crazy-busy with other projects– though I have been pretty crazy-busy. And oddly, with EMUTalk.org closed up and the Facebook group for EMUTalk moving right along, you would think I’d have more time and energy here. Maybe I just haven’t had the time (or I haven’t made the time) to sit down and write something worthy of a post. Or maybe a better way of saying it is every time I would have thought about writing something, I end up needing to or wanting to work on something else.

In any event: a couple of weeks ago, there was a blog post/commentary/whatever that got passed around the social medias a bit, “This is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!” by Everett Piper, who is the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University. Ostensibly, Piper was responding to a student at OkWU who “felt ‘victimized’ by a sermon on the topic of 1 Corinthians 13” (don’t ask me what that means– I looked that passage up and it seems to be about the power of God and don’t kill or commit adultery), but he’s clearly responding to all kinds of college students proclaiming their “victim-hood,” from various injustices like yoga classes and costume controversies, to the ways in which race and the #blacklivesmatter movement has played out on campuses, particularly at the University of Missouri.  Piper’s post concludes:

Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a “safe place”, but rather, a place to learn: to learn that life isn’t about you, but about others; that the bad feeling you have while listening to a sermon is called guilt; that the way to address it is to repent of everything that’s wrong with you rather than blame others for everything that’s wrong with them. This is a place where you will quickly learn that you need to grow up.

This is not a day care. This is a university.

Piper’s post went viral and he had his moment in the mainstream media, even getting this not unsympathetic response from the New York Times, though most of the news favoring Piper’s approach was from places like Glen Beck’s TheBlaze.com and Fox News.

It’s easy for Piper to talk about OkWU as being “not a day care” because OkWU is a theocracy. This is not a university that moved away from its primarily religious mission long ago nor is it a church-sponsored institution that emphases a specific faith but welcomes a variety of different religious beliefs. No, as the OkWU student handbook makes abundantly clear, this is a university where everyone is expected to be a specific version of Christian, where the Bible is taken literally, where all drugs are strictly prohibited, as is all pornography. And, of course, no sex:

Oklahoma Wesleyan University affirms the exemplar and standard of heterosexual monogamy within the context of marriage as the singular, healthy, and holy expression of human sexuality. Behavior that promotes, celebrates, or advertises sexual deviancy or a sexual identity outside of the scriptural expectation of sexuality is prohibited.

By virtue of their voluntary enrollment, all students, regardless of age, residency, or status agree to engage in sexual behavior exclusively within the context of marital heterosexual monogamy. All students also agree to not engage in any behavior that promotes, celebrates, or advertises sexual deviancy or a sexual identity outside of the scriptural expectation of sexuality.

This place teaches students “about life” the same way as a Taliban Madrassas, just different religions and focusing on the Bible rather than the Qur’an.

(Though interestingly enough, there is a “daycare” element too since OkWU’s “Residential Parent Connect” provides several updates every semester to parents about “what your student is up to while away at college.”)

It’s also easy to point out that Piper’s concern about the “coddling” of college students isn’t remotely new. One of the many research holes I’ve leaped/fallen into with my ongoing MOOC project is about the rise and fall of teaching by correspondence in the early 20th century, and this has included some poking around Abraham Flexner’s 1930 book Universities: American, English, German. Flexner was a well known education reformer and his book is a purple-prosed and scathing attack on many different aspects of higher education just shy of 100 years ago. Here’s a rather fitting paragraph about “the kids today” back then:

Every jerk and shock must be eliminated; the students must be “oriented”; they must be “advised” as to what to “take”; they must be vocationally guided. How is it possible to educate persons who will never be permitted to burn their fingers, who must be dexterously and expensively housed, first as freshmen, then as upperclassmen, so as to make the right sort of social connections and to establish the right sort of social relationships, who are protected against risk as they should be protected against plague, and who, even though “they work their way through,” have no conception of the effort required to develop intellectual sinew?

Framed in the current debate, Flexner appears to be complaining both about coddling and “trigger warnings.”

And there have also been several very good and reasonable columns that I think anyone who is prone to complain about these “damn college kids today” needs to read first. For example, there’s “How Talking to Undergraduates Changed My Mind” by Steven Petrow in The Atlantic and “The Profound Emptiness of ‘Resilience'” by Parul Sehgal in The New York Times. Both pieces point out in different ways that there has been an alarming rise in racism that crosses over to hate crimes on college campuses, and thus there are good reasons why students are asking that their campuses be made “safe spaces.”

But here’s the thing: universities are kind of like daycare, and that’s a good thing.

Both daycare and universities are institutions which are potentially liable if something bad happens: that is, a serious toddler fall at the play-dough table caused by daycare negligence and a serious freshmen fall from a dorm window caused by university negligence are both going to lead to various kinds of charges and lawsuits. There were several notorious daycare sex abuse scandals years ago (though most of that was hysteria rather than reality); the most certain way a tenured faculty member will be fired from most universities nowadays is to get caught up in a sex scandal with a student, even if that student is 18 or older. And so on.

in loco parentis isn’t a new idea, though it does seem to me to be a responsibility that universities are taking a lot more seriously now than when they did when I was an undergraduate in the mid 1980s.  I’m no expert, but I think one big motivator for this is the change in drinking age, from a system that varied from state to state (in Iowa, it was 19) to a national age of 21. Before that change, it was legal for the majority of kids in the dorm to drink (or at least close enough to legal); after that change, it wasn’t and I think universities felt the pressure to crack down.

The other big change I think has to do with an emphasis on retention and increasing graduation rates, and one way to keep students in school is to pay more attention to their lives in way that is “parental.”  I actually know more about how this works at the University of Michigan rather than at EMU because my son Will is wrapping up his first semester at U of M right now. He lives in a dorm on a floor where a resident assistant “looks over” a group of about a 20 or so, a building that is clean, secure, and comfortable. He jokes that the dining hall is like eating on a cruise ship with its variety and availability (though perhaps not quite as much in terms of quality). He has an advisor assigned to him to guide him through his courses and registration. Annette and I receive regular email updates from U of M directed to parents, and we’re encouraged by some outside company (it looks like U of M sold a mailing list) to pay to have “care packages” delivered to our child, expensive boxes of cookies and candy Will tells me are a complete rip-off. The point is U of M works hard at reassuring parents like me that they’re taking care of and paying attention to my child/their student. It’s not as invasive as OkWU’s program that seems to me to be a mechanism for parents to spy on their kids away at college, but U of M’s day-to-day “care” for its students– particularly first year students and those living in the dorms– is evident.

And besides all that, it seems to me that universities (at least for traditional students) and daycare are similar in that both are spaces where children begin to transition away from parents, at least a bit. Well-run daycares and well-run universities both give our children access to a new level of self-confidence and independence. There’s an obvious degree of difference in the kind of independent moves our kids make, but don’t discount how that happens in daycare settings. I vividly remember a specific time in seeing this with Will. He was about one, maybe 18 months. I came into the daycare baby room to take him home and he (along with the other kids) was in a high chair wearing a bib with a bowl of some kind of baby food in front of him, and– and this is the kicker– he was feeding himself, sloppily, incompletely, but independently. “Wow, I didn’t realize he could do that!” I said to the daycare worker. “We always feed him at home.” She smiled and said “Yeah, we can’t do that with all of the kids here. So we hand them a spoon and they go at it.”

It was a little thing, sure, but it was moment where I realized that my son, even as a baby, had things in his life outside of what I knew and controlled as a parent. That independence grew throughout daycare and then school and now at college. All of these spaces protect and nurture children/students, but they also allow them to explore independence. In that sense, it’s better that universities are a little like daycare than not.

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