The college that I work for is starting to describe its mission in terms of something like preparing future leaders for a diverse and fast-changing world. I understand that this statement is primarily designed to appeal to tuition-paying parents who might like to imagine their kid as a future leader, and that it won’t necessarily change what it is actually like to be a professor or a student at the college. Nevertheless, this advertising campaign troubles me in ways that I wouldn’t feel comfortable discussing with anyone at work.
My students are human beings with a wide range of strengths, which may or may not include the desire or potential to be a leader. Do we no longer think it is valuable, as an institution or as a society, for those without traditional leadership qualities to also obtain a college education consistent with the paths they wish to take in their lives? While it is great that my institution is highlighting diversity in its talking points, the message I hear is that all kinds of people will be welcomed on campus as long as they all have the same dominant, top-of-the-corporate-ladder personality. We don’t all have to be privileged, but we all have to successfully act the part.
I am not a “leader,” and I don’t apologize for that. The world wouldn’t work if everyone needed to be a leader. (Please don’t tell me that maybe I’m a “quiet leader,” or any similarly patronizing title for non-leaders that the more powerful folks let us use when it is convenient for them to let us pass.) Traditional leadership qualities were never a requirement of the job I was hired to do, and they shouldn’t become a requirement just to make classes more appealing to students who value power and charisma over all else. Leadership qualities also shouldn’t become a requirement for students in most classes. Many people are quiet, modest, and/or anxious for one reason or another, and we have plenty to contribute to a diverse and fast-changing world, if that world will include us.
It is really sad that many young people feel they have to live like stars or politicians, in the heat of a social media spotlight and striving to be so bubbly that they’re about to pop. But let’s not pretend that this phenomenon is anything other than a larger-scale, higher-tech, expression of old-fashioned adolescent peer pressure, that strengthens the people on top of the social hierarchy at the expense of those who look or think or behave differently from the mainstream ideal. That some educators and parents are buying into and encouraging this cruel youth popularity contest — because they want to appeal to young people and are desperate not to have the kids think they look ‘uncool’ — is both pathetic and disgraceful. College should help students envision meaningful lives that suit their own personalities, not provide more buzzwords to justify senseless competition and conformity.