Educating for Democracy: Penn State and Division l Education

11/28/2011 09:08 pm ET | Updated Jan 28, 2012

As one of those rare beings who managed to survive high school, college and two universities without ever having a football team to root for, I sometimes wonder how serious we take higher education in a country where team sports often define one's educational experience. According to its own statistics, Penn State, arguably one of the better state universities in the country, has a four-year graduation rate of 48 percent, although it improves to 70 percent in six years. Comparable institutions -- Ohio State and the University of Wisconsin -- were in the mid-50-percent range, although up to 80 percent in six years.

Although there are many factors that contribute to the longer period of time for half of the students in these universities to receive their degrees, since financial problems are a significant part of them, I wonder if even these public universities might consider the possibility that they are overpriced. At Penn State, for instance, a state resident who chose to live on campus with a full-course load would have to pay over $13,000 per semester. Allowing for various loans and student grants, the expenses could still prove to total almost $100,000 for a degree.

But in the public mind, what these enormous institutions are most noted for are not their academic programs but their standings, ratings and records in Division l sports, particularly football. Ask any graduate of Oxford, the Sorbonne or Tubingen what they most remember in their education; it is unlikely to be their rowing, soccer or rugby teams, if they had them at all. But it seems as if we Americans just love to be entertained, even when the emphasis on entertainment might be inappropriate or unproductive. Tragic and revealing as the sex scandal at Penn State is, it dismays me almost as much that this story can be a major news item for weeks.

With more than two out of every three instructors at institutions of higher learning part-time or graduate assistants, and with about a 50-percent graduation rate nationally in the normal four-year period of instruction, I am concerned that the emphasis on collegiate sports that pervades our national culture has its inevitable "dumbing down" effect on students and the institutions themselves, and that students are now being crushed under a trillion-dollar debt of college loans with little prospect of getting the kind of jobs to enable them to repay these debts. I wonder when the "higher education bubble" will burst with some of the same disastrous results as the home mortgage crisis. These are the issues that are being discussed and debated in the "Occupy Wall Street" movement and should be of more significance to the general public than a sad end to Joe Paterno's brilliant career.

It would be tempting for me to rail against the exploitative nature of these Division l sports in terms of the relatively free-labor "student-athletes," many of whom are "amateurs" in name only, contributing results in an enormous amount of revenue for their alma mater. That many of these varsity students never graduate, or, if they do, receive degrees of questionable value is to me as shameful in its own way as the more sensational scandal at Penn State.

But all of this is part of a larger pattern of the perpetual adolescence and anti-intellectualism of American culture. If educational excellence can be too often eclipsed with our desperate need for spectator sports to, as in the words of Neil Postman, "amuse ourselves to death," then although our best football and basketball teams may be able to beat any others worldwide, that's not going to count very much in the age of "global competition." Certainly, we have excellent institutions of higher learning, but the "higher learning" part should be more important to us than the collegiate football championship or "March Madness."