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IN MY OPINION

Student daze

Why can’t students be more like their professors?

By DOUG MANN | MAY 11 2015

Any reflective observer of higher education today knows that with a few exceptions, students are driven by three major values.

First, they are in universities and colleges to get a degree, which they hope will get them a job. To accomplish this effectively, they want to get the highest marks possible, and for most of them that means doing the least work they can to accomplish this goal. That’s why up to half the students in a typical arts or social science course don’t even buy all the assigned texts much less read them, yet are willing to email their professors and teaching assistants at the end of term that they are “unhappy with their marks.” That’s also why precariously employed professors eager for strong evaluations dumb down courses and inflate pre-exam grades, knowing full well what students want out of a course. The evaluative medium of a course, not its content, is the message – grades trump ideas. Students today are instrumental rationalists, seeking the quickest and easiest means to the end of post-graduate employment.

Second, they are at least mildly if not severely addicted to digital networks. The foundation of both their social and academic lives is this digital connectivity: no booze-ups or hookups or study sessions without Facebook. These networks also connect them to their families, who give them a soft cushion of parental concern to fall back on if they get a C in their political science class, instead of allowing them to learn the value of self-reliance based on a solid work ethic. They drug away whatever unpleasantness they might experience in their perambulations through the urban landscapes outside their school’s gates by gluing their eyes to text streaming on small screens in their hands. Words on paper are strictly optional.

Third, they are consumers who rarely if ever reflect on the moral or ecological problems created by the globalized capitalist system we all live in. Suburban shopping malls, online markets like Amazon, cheaply made goods from China, the omnipresence of brand names like Apple and Hunter and Nike and Canada Goose on campus – these are all givens for the average undergraduate. If one strolls to the back of the class during a break, one can see about a third of them on the web, shopping for clothes and technology (with most of the rest on Facebook or YouTube). Students eat, wear, work and play through brands. They are practised shoppers seeking the best means to the great end of mass consumption.

None of this is surprising, since the three values that dominate students’ lives – instrumental rationality, digital connectivity, and consumerism – are the same values promoted by the political economy that rules the West and is promoted in the hundreds of TV, print and Internet ads the typical citizen intuits each day.

In a November 2014 article in The Spectator, Brendan O’Neill bemoans the fact that most of the British university students he’s met of late are in the grips of a groupthink that has traded risqué political ideas and raunchy rock for “the right to feel comfortable.” No longer free spirits, he writes that they are “bereft of critical faculties” and are “far more interested in shutting debate down” than engaging with dangerous ideas. Hiding behind a falsely leftist moral certainty linked to a self-refuting social constructionism, what he dubs “Stepford students” ban everything form abortion debates and laddish language to sexually charged pop music and The Sun. Social media allow them to amplify their trivial outrages, which fade to black after getting their fifteen minutes of fame. John Stuart Mill would roll in his grave.

As O’Neill hints, these Stepford students equate the moral opprobrium associated with Robin Thicke’s naughty song Blurred Lines (as of late 2014, banned in 20 British universities) with religion-fuelled mass slaughter, being more likely to protest the former with a snappy hashtag on Twitter than to actively protest the real threat to a critical education and democracy represented by violent fundamentalism.

Yes, the times are a’changing. But the youthful idealism seen in past generations of students – and here I except the French and Quebecois – is more likely to be found today in the middle-aged professors who teach them. The typical Canadian undergraduate today has a mindset fully in line with that of corporate and political elites. So sad.

Doug Mann teaches sociology and media studies at Western. Despite evidence to the contrary, he actually likes most of his students.

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  1. Heidi Tiedemann Darroch / May 11, 2015 at 11:24 am

    Many of my own undergraduate students are deeply invested in a variety of causes and communities: campus divestment campaigns, student politics, field schools investigating the legacy of colonialism, and volunteer work helping hard-to-house people with mental health issues learn agriculture. If these are among the “few exceptions” claimed by the author, I have been extraordinarily fortunate in the young people I have met, all of whom would be capable of identifying the logical fallacies in this petty and poorly conceived opinion piece.

  2. William Badke / May 13, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    I should be amazed at this piece and its wholesale condemnation of this higher education generation, but, sadly, I keep reading and hearing the same things. e.g. Today’s students are in it for themselves, they’re lazy, they’re distracted, and so on.

    The question is, “What are we doing to engage them?” The notion that students are what they are and we can’t do anything about it is ludicrous. If they come to us only wanting a degree, doing minimal work, spending too much time on tech, etc. then we need to excite them with learning. Why should we assume we can do nothing to inspire them?

    Here’s a radical thought: Having worked with university students for over three decades, I have come to believe that most of them want to excel at their studies. Most of them are still interested in learning and becoming better people in the process. Maybe what kills such idealism is the thinly veiled message that they receive from some of their professors: “You are unmotivated people who are only here to get your credential. I will teach you, but don’t expect that I’ll like you.”

    Hopefully we will see more pieces extolling the virtues of today’s students and fewer diatribes against them.

  3. University Instructor / May 13, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    I have to disagree with the author. My students are doing all of these things DURING class, during breaks they talk with each other..

  4. Joan Foley / May 13, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    I don’t understand why you imply that past generations of French and Quebecois students did not exhibit youthful idealism.

  5. Stephanie Adele / May 13, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    Wow, undergraduate students are motivated by the same three things that motivate the working world and global economy that they will be entering (if they are lucky) upon graduation. How disgusting!

    As an undergraduate student, I can safely say that it is hard to become a beacon of “youthful idealism” when the world around me is pretty damn bleak, including the world of higher education. Most of my professors are interested in either ignoring me completely outside of the classroom or exploiting me to further their own research (and for the record, I am one of the “exceptions” who is passionate about learning and critical engagement). Maybe if professors actually believed in our potential, instead of labeling us as lazy, consumer-driven babies, we would have a better environment to thrive in.

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