Given that it's back-to-school season, it makes sense that this issue of reason boasts two feature stories about education, a subject that not only consumes billions of dollars every year but produces untold hours of parental and student anxiety.
In "Welcome to the Fun-Free University" (page 40), David Weigel reports on how the principle of in loco parentis has returned with a vengeance to the nation's colleges, strangling not only student freedom but most of the fun out of higher education. From the late 1960s through the '70s, all sorts of longstanding prohibitions, guidelines, and restrictions on student life were lifted, ushering in an age of autonomy, whether in personal lifestyles or in picking classes. To be sure, there were excesses, but there was also a good deal of interesting experimentation and exploration.
Yet by the time I graduated from college in 1985, the sun was already setting on that age. Many campuses had already gone dry (or were about to), and prosecutions for casual drug use were on the rise. Mandatory courses returned with a vengeance, freshman composition classes were becoming vehicles for what would soon be known as political correctness, and strident speech codes were just around the corner. Weigel charts how this remarkable turnaround happened and underscores the larger implications of the new nanny university: "The stiffening of campus law also illustrates the trend toward greater control of adults' personal behavior" in contemporary America.
In "No Way Out" (page 34), Lisa Snell documents the abject failure of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which was supposed to rescue poor kids from failing public schools by giving them the "choice" to enroll at better institutions. Ballyhooed by a rare bipartisan coalition that included the likes of George W. Bush and Teddy Kennedy, the 2001 law doesn't even rate a grade of F. Since its passage, Snell reports, "less than 2 percent of parents nationwide have transferred their children to other public schools." That's not because of low demand. Rather, school districts have made it virtually impossible for such transfers to take place.
Like all too many education reforms, the No Child Left Behind Act is toothless, carrying no real punishments for a public school monopoly that excels only at maintaining the pedagogical status quo and increasing tax funding. As bad, there are no incentives for good schools to accept new students. Until bad schools lose federal per-pupil funding for failing to educate kids and high-performing schools gain funding, concludes Snell, the No Child Left Behind Act will remain a bitter joke played on poor and disadvantaged Americans.
No wonder education causes so much anxiety. And no wonder that, for students of all ages, September is the cruelest month.