“Raftergate” and the Decline of Academic Excellence

Guus Duindam –

A specter is haunting Illinois College – released upon an unwitting student body by the upper echelons of its administration.

President Farley’s announcement that books are henceforth to be included in tuition has been the cause of widespread discontent. The chaotic forum on the matter – a venting-moment designed to release some pressure from the kettle of student opinion – evidenced this, if nothing else. College administrators there argued that the status quo is broken: the American system of purchasing books must be revised, a movement in which Illinois College will once again be pioneer; that, at least, was the general message. Is something truly rotten (in the state of Denmark), as the administration suggests?

Yes, I will argue in this article, but it is not the system of purchasing books that needs repaired. The main argument presented for the new program is fallacious; the policy is, in fact, detrimental to student learning and moves this college farther away from true academic excellence.

A great, indeed disturbing number of students show up to class without their books. Why? I contend the answer is twofold: (1) some students may truly not be able to afford their books, while a larger group (2) simply lacks the motivation to procure them. A college- (or, if you will, Rafter-) monopoly on books does not improve matters for the first group of students. Indeed, it makes their difficulties worse, as cheaper solutions – notably, the invariably more favorable pricing of online vendors – are now out of reach to all students. Hence, the new policy must be directed at the second group: those students who lack the motivation to purchase their learning materials in a timely fashion. Force-feeding these individuals their books may, indeed, serve to artificially lengthen their academic life-expectancy. Whether we should wish to do so is another matter entirely.

The motivation to learn is an essential ingredient to academic success. Indeed, combined with a degree of discipline, it forms the essential ingredient to academic success. Students who do not possess either of these characteristics – and it appears that those who do not bother even to procure their books may be thus described – are not fit for academic learning and ought not to have been admitted to this institution. Before the reader jumps up in protest, note that all this means is that those who do not truly desire to learn should not be part of an organization whose central goal is to transmit learning. Surely, that is not too far-fetched a claim.

The problem of ill-prepared students, then, is not one caused by a broken system of book-purchasing. Rather, it is caused at the gates of the college, where students fundamentally unsuited to academics are nonetheless admitted. The symptoms of this uncritical policy of admission are not limited to students without books. Ill-motivated students account for less-effective classes, render the work of faculty-members increasingly challenging, and reduce the value of this institution’s degrees.

Notwithstanding brightly colored banners attesting the contrary, Illinois College is not sufficiently committed to academic excellence. Rather than turning our campus into an ennobled high-school, let us solve this problem at the gates. Better, more rigorous policies of admission will ensure that students are appropriately prepared and improve student learning. All without limiting students’ finances or freedom.

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