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.