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The unsettling tendency to malign ‘kids today’

By MELONIE FULLICK | May 15, 2015

I don’t know what’s happened to the kids today … we were different from the kids today in every way …”

This week there’s been a sharp reaction to a recent piece in the New York Times, by Mark Bauerlein (a professor at Emory University). Bauerlein’s argument goes something like this: Today’s students don’t “engage” enough with their professors outside of class time, because they are too busy focussing on instrumental goals like getting a job, rather than on finding the meaning of life. Therefore, they don’t appreciate their professors enough (as “thinkers and mentors”) and don’t receive the valuable guidance profs could share. In the past this was different, because students respected faculty as role models and mentors. Faculty aren’t let off the hook either; they’re blamed for being too involved with their research, rather than with teaching and mentoring.

There is so much going on here, far too much to take apart in one blog post. Thankfully a lot of it has been discussed in various other pieces, including those from L.D. Burnett, Daniel W. Drezner, Erik Loomis, Matt Reed, Kevin Gannon, Kevin Grier, Ann M. Little and Raul Pacheco-Vega. They have critiqued the historical inaccuracies; the (elitist) generalizations about students, faculty, and higher education institutions; and the media coverage of postsecondary issues.

What some of you might not have seen was that Bauerlein’s op-ed was followed by this piece by Doug Mann, “Why can’t students be more like their professors?”, which is written along similar lines from a Canadian perspective. Unfortunately I couldn’t help but hear the voice of Henry Higgins even as I read the title, and things don’t improve from there. Mann argues that Kids These Days are “driven by three major values”: “instrumental rationality, digital connectivity, and consumerism.” All this is in contrast to “the youthful idealism seen in past generations of students,” which “is more likely to be found today in the middle-aged professors who teach them.”

Like Bauerlein, Mann bemoans the loss of an idealized student radicalism that supposedly suffused campuses in a previous era. For Mann, students nowadays are clones of “corporate and political elites” (ignoring that the latter belong in large part, of course, to his own generation). Both authors project a version of preferred politics onto their students, which allows them to find students lacking in both respect for their elders and political chutzpah.

Like Bauerlein, Mann laments that students no longer take their cues about appropriate morality from their professors; but I can’t help asking, “did they ever?” If they did, let’s remember this morality has also involved harassment and discrimination within academic culture and institutions; that it has been elitist and exclusionary; and that academe is no more a bastion of moral superiority or political purity than any other institution.

Mann’s column and Bauerlein’s op-ed are both essentially higher ed clickbait (perhaps this is what we should expect from an author who titles his book, The Dumbest Generation). But there are three inter-related problems I want to talk about that arise in both these articles, and in many others I have read.

The first problem is one of context. It’s not just the historical inaccuracies but the near-total lack of attention to structural and systemic factors. For example, there’s a reason students are preoccupied with employment; not only has there been a recession, but this is the message being sent about higher education, from governments, high school guidance counsellors, and universities themselves. For good or ill, education is framed in terms of its economic value not just for individuals, but also for cities and for nations; and if you’re told “no degree, no job” then the “choice” is clear. This was not the kind of situation faced by students in the 1960s, who also didn’t face the same costs for their education.

Secondly, because there’s no real examination of cultural, social and economic changes that have shaped the context for student life today, it’s easy to blame students for their own supposed inadequacies. This is why in both articles, students are at fault for being driven by instrumental goals: they want a degree because they are “seeking the quickest and easiest means to the end of post-graduate employment.” It’s why Bauerlein makes the dismissive comment, “so many things distract them — the gym, text messages, rush week.” He might have noted that students are also “distracted” by things like financial stress, mental health issues, family problems, illness and disability, bereavement, and the need to juggle schoolwork with jobs and other responsibilities.

Lastly, in both these pieces there is something deeply troubling about the way professors are describing (diagnosing?) students, and with the way student-faculty relationships are framed. It seems as if the authors can’t take the mental leap required, or can’t summon the will to put in the effort to connect with these students or to understand them as they are. Surely if you’re teaching well, and you’ve been teaching for a long time, you’ve figured out something about how to bridge the cultural gaps that can show up in the classroom. Instead, Bauerlein laments that so few students become his “disciples,” and both authors portray them as crudely calculating, unconcerned with the (academic) inner life.

I find it unsettling is that Bauerlein, for example, has taken the concept of mentorship and turned it on its head, so that we see the image of what one professor desires for his own validation — not what the student might need. This lack is turned into a problem with students, who cannot see the value in what their professors have to offer (and therefore cannot fulfill the prof’s desire to offer it). The egoistic viewpoint here also shows the author’s reliance on institutional hierarchy, even as he invokes a politically rebellious past. But as Matt Reed notes, education is “not about the faculty. The idea that colleges exist to recruit groupies for faculty is creepy, patriarchal, and wrong.”

So, to return to responsibility: blaming students in this way isn’t just unhelpful, it’s also unfair. If you want to claim the right to be an authority due to age, position and experience, then the knowledge you’ve gained is a privilege and also a burden; the onus is on you to find the best way to share it, to help students find their way to understanding. That’s a challenge of the job, and it’s the responsibility that neither of these critics seems willing to take on, though surely it’s part of what’s at the core of teaching as a practice.

It’s true that the student body isn’t what it used to be, which is clear to anyone who bothers to check the research literature on massification and accessibility in higher education. If the authors would prefer to return to the university of the 1950s and earlier — when only a small proportion of potential students could attend — many of their complaints might be remedied. Then again I suspect we’d find, if we checked the historical record, that the griping of teachers about their students extends much further back than the expansion of recent decades, a recurring generational dynamic that is about power and change rather than “decline.”

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Jo VanEvery / May 16, 2015 at 8:43 am

    Excellent points. I agree that wanting disciples is creepy, I think there is a much more widespread (and less creepy) tendency evident here but affecting the experience of academics: the tendency to assume they were typical students.

    Anyone who went on to do a PhD was NOT a typical student of their generation, even in a generation pre-massification. It is pretty common for academics to compare their students to themselves as students and then be disappointed that they seem to be satisfied with a B or are not excited about deep intellectual things, or want to finish school and get out into the real world. THe fact is even when I was a student (early ’80s), MOST students saw university as a short stage on a path to somewhere else. My guidance counsellor in high school emphasized possible careers and then what degree you’d need to go into that. And “what would you do with that?” has existed as a question for a very long time.

    Unless these authors are in their late 60s or older, they were not students during the iconic days of student protest in the 60s and early 70s. They may be nostalgic for that and from this distance they may be closer in age to that time than to their own students, but it’s still nostalgia.

  2. Noel Semple / May 19, 2015 at 8:32 am

    Brilliant! This is spot on, and so is Jo’s comment.

  3. david / May 20, 2015 at 3:08 pm

    It’s the B student that demands an A that drives me crazy They need to replace the federal per student funding with block funding so that universities can reject more students An entrance exam like the SAT would also help

    • Michael S / May 26, 2015 at 2:42 pm

      I’m not going to try to excuse every student that gets demanding about marks, but I’ll bring up an important point. Doug Mann complained that students were, to his mind, overly concerned about marks, and that no “more than 10% of students will [choose an] exciting C over the dull A”.
      Well, this is an institutional issue as well. Marks are equated with money. I don’t just mean for the highest achievers – entrance and Dean’s List scholarships depend on obtaining and maintaining a certain average. The higher cost of education means that scholarships are essential to many students. Given that kind of financial pressure, why wouldn’t a student see if there’s a chance a prof will reconsider a mark? Why wouldn’t a student be anxious or emotional about it? Why wouldn’t students choose classes based on marks when thousands of dollars are on the line?

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