I was entertaining that question, after I found an article in one of my file boxes the other day: 'College Daze', by Charles Murray (FORBES, Sept. 1, 2008). In the article, Murray essentially argues that college-university as any kind of "apprenticeship" for adulthood is vastly overrated. Most colleges, indeed, are now more in loco parentis nanny operations, to ensure little Jill or Junior don't get too stressed out from overwork, and - more importantly - they have adequate social connections, support systems to keep their brains from meltdown.
A special pet peeve of Murray's is that the "demanding professor is close to being extinct". He points out the example that many tests, exams have to be given as make-ups because the little ones came down with fevers, had 104F temperatures, and were unable to leave home. (Well, in the case of an actual H1N1 epidemic I can perhaps see that, but not when it is invoked as a matter of course).
I saw this myself in my one and only brief foray into U.S. higher ed in 1992 (this was soon after returning to the U.S. from 20 years in Barbados).
While in Barbados I taught at Harrison College, a college prep and advanced level institution that also offered the equivalent of the first two years at university. Thus, it would be comparable to U.S. community colleges.
At Harrison College, I taught mainly A-level Physics. This would be comparable to university level 'General Physics' with Calculus. To give interested readers an idea, I append a sheet from my course lecture notes - this one on the discharge of a capacitor.
Homework problems were always challenging, and included a mix of questions from the textbooks used (College Physics by Zemansky and Young, A-Level Physics by T. Duncan) and my own questions. The passing mark was generally 60%, which in the Barbados system was equivalent to a D-low C. Virtually no one ever racked up an 80%, far less 90%. It simply was not on. And we didn't have little Juniors or Jills going into meltdown mode because of it.
To attain a 90%, for example, one would typically have to get 9 problems out of 10 done correctly with working shown fully. Correct answers minus the working garnered 1 out of 10 points. If that. Usually, therefore, A's were scarce, though I did allow IF a student scored at least an 80% overall in my course, he had well earned an A.
The exams and tests themselves contained no formulas, as appears to be the case in the U.S. freshman college physics' environment. The only additional information given consisted of a short table with values of assorted physical constants which might be needed.
There were also none of these idiotic student evaluation forms. This meant that grade inflation could not occur, because teachers-lecturers could not be blackmailed into going soft at the threat of receiving bad evaluations which become part of their permanent record.
When I started teaching at the local community college (at the time, in Maryland) it was a different story. At the outset I suspected something amiss, when the instructor whose physics class I was taking over (he was going on sabbatical) told me he never ever gives below a B.
First thought in my mind? WTF! How can you say in advance you will never give below a B, unless you know in advance all your students will earn B-level work? It didn't make sense. But, once I began teaching, it did.
Five days into the course (and we were still on the easiest part to do with basic thermal physics, temperatures etc.) a kid came to me after the first homework and informed me he tends to "see red" when he gets a paper back marked up in red ink. I basically told him, look kid, if your mental state is that weak - getting frazzled just at the sight of red ink (which I do need to make corrections) you had best leave this course. He left four days later.
To be fair here, the class 0f about 12 students consisted mostly of people 22 and older who were also part -time working folks. I had no problem with that, since I was once a working person too (teaching at a community college in Barbados) while completing my thesis for the Masters in Physics. My problems arose when assorted class members tried to use the excuse of their real world obligations to fob off their class assignments, including labs and homeworks.
As they discovered, these sort of excuses wouldn't work - I didn't care if they had to put in five ten hour overtimes in a week. If the combination of doing college physics in tandem with a full time job was too much, it was time to amscray from college and stick to work. There would be no special passes given, or any benedictions for missing assignments.
Of course, the class average began to crater, and one student even had the nerve to threaten me: "Remember there are teacher evaluations to come". I told the kid to do what he had to, but if I coughed up an A or B merely because of a threat I'd no longer be able to look myself in the mirror. And I was the person that I had to live with.
On the good side, there were a core of four students who diligently did the work, and they were rewarded for their pluck: one A and three Bs. The rest earned Cs and Ds. That was what they earned, that was what they got.
The final exam, their last shot at glory, saw the low fliers begging me to put all the equations needed on the exam question sheet. I informed them I'd do no such thing. As it was I agreed to allow for five equations, merely because their prior teacher did it. I told them all other equations - if needed- could be deduced or inferred from what were given.
The smart kids got it and did well, the losers.....errrr....low fliers, didn't. 'Nuff said.
As predicted, my student evaluations came back and were as bad as they threatened. As it turned out, it didn't matter anyway, since I'd been hired at a much better job writing technical drafts and regulatory documents for a radiotherapy software corporation. But, I realized then - as Murray did in his piece - that college teaching is for the birds. You can't teach properly if you are always under siege by students or being blackmailed into giving grades higher than merited.
Murray's other beef was with the way college students are now treated virtually like little invalids in their campus housing situations. As he notes:
"It used to be that the girls had house mothers to do bed checks and the guys might have a proctor living on the dorm corridor, and otherwise students were on their own. No longer. Colleges now have large bureaucracies of 'res life staff' charged with responding to any scrape our little darlings might suffer".
Which is true, since this is the scene as I recall it from college in the 1960s. (Loyola University in New Orleans, Biever Hall - for men, later Buddig Hall -for women). We had one dorm monitor per floor. There were no "meetings" with any dorm mates or other floor mates, because the university was wise enough to know you can't force social interaction. If other students on the same floor actually chose to become your friend, that was a different matter. The whole notion that a student required some extra (beyond room mate) assistance to get his or her bearings and stay moored, was ludicrous. If any such dorm students would have expressed yearnings like that at the time, we'd have thought them retarded.
"Wait. Are you a college student, or a kindergartner?"
One more thing. We learned much outside the classroom by the give and take of direct argument and interaction via the classic 'bull sessions'. I recall many a night staying up until well past three a.m. to debate with fellow students the ethics (or lack thereof- Does the end justify the means?) of fighting the VietNam War, and elaborate discussions to do with Platonic ethics as it relates to Church Canon law.
Today the bull session is a thing of the past, replaced by electronic mommies known as computers, which enables students to avoid direct, energizing and intellectually demanding face-offs, in favor of.,........Twitter, or Facebook.
At that time (60s), the whole notion of using an electronic platform as surrogate parent, or to make electronic "friends", would have aroused the utmost laughter, and contempt.