Each year University Affairs offers two internship placements of one or two weeks’ duration to Carleton University journalism students. I coordinate these internships and it is always an enjoyable experience for me to work with the students. Since last week, fourth-year journalism student David Meffe has been with us reporting on and writing stories for the magazine. He was also invited, and accepted, to write the following guest blog post for us on the issue of student stress, which has been in the news recently. We welcome his point of view. Take it away, David!
Despite what shopping mall speakers are trying to make me believe, this is not the most wonderful time of the year, not yet at least. As usual, there’s one giant roadblock standing between students and a winter break filled with spiked eggnog and endless consequence-free procrastination: the almighty and universally dreaded exam period.
As per the season, Globe and Mail columnists Margaret Wente and Gary Mason fired shots back and forth last week, debating whether today’s universities are breeding a generation of self-entitled students incapable of dealing with pressure or the inevitable challenges of “The Real World.” This, coupled with hundreds of panicked news stories about record-breaking levels of student stress has once again given rise to the ever-circular debate over today’s lazier-than-ever students and our culture of mediocrity in the face of challenges.
Yet, from what I can see, the bulk of the criticism is stemming from baby boomers like Ms. Wente who see today’s education system as coddling and unrealistic, causing the very same stresses they’re seeking to alleviate. But are today’s students really being bred for failure or are critics like Ms. Wente deliberately seeking controversy by comparing apples and oranges?
I don’t think stress levels have reached pandemic proportions, but I do think I belong to a generation that loves to complain, especially when all our worldly woes can be validated by our peers with the click of a “Like” button. Once the season hits, we all know to brace ourselves for the onslaught of whiney exam-related social media posts that are undoubtedly coming. We’ve unfortunately all made peace with this, many choosing to join in on the fun.
But now we see the emergence of new methods aimed at trying to decompress students, from puppy petting rooms to seasonal counselling and even free cocoa. But are we being coddled or are the squeaky wheels just getting their grease? Many boomers like to believe that since we’re better at communally acknowledging our discontent and anxiety, we must therefore be completely incapable of coping with it.
Do we think we have it any harder than previous generations of students? No. However, does this mean that we’ve thereby earned the condescension we’re seeing from boomers? Absolutely not.
Maybe university isn’t meant to be easy, but stepping on students’ heels doesn’t make our work any more rewarding or the work of others any more valid. Baby boomers talk about how universities have “watered down the standards,” which to me is like being lectured about how students used to have to walk home from school, uphill both ways and without shoes.
This never-ending competition over who had it worse is getting a little ridiculous. I feel like we live in a revolving door of complainers and sanctimonious sympathy seekers, with every generation wanting the next to recognize how bad they had it and how much easier things are now. Molehills become mountains and the persistence of human memory takes for granted the aging mind’s tendency towards a “grass was always browner in my day” mentality.
The quest for higher education has always been difficult, and different generations of students have faced different challenges and subsequently dealt with them in very different ways. I like to think that when Plato complained about his exams, Socrates probably whacked him upside the head and mumbled something about how scrolls in his day were harder to unfurl.
Just because some like to recall their university experience as a school of hard knocks, it doesn’t mean their education is somehow more worthy of ours, or the world’s acknowledgement. I come from a generation that encourages students to talk about anxiety and depression, in the hopes not of being coddled, but rather of making peers understand that these feelings are not only mutual, they’re universal. In this way, we create a university culture that is understanding and empathetic rather than relying on the need to step above those we feel aren’t up to schoolyard snuff.
Instead of bickering over who’s got the biggest academic scars, let’s use a little inter-generational relativity and cut each other some slack. Exams have always sucked, but regardless of what we do to cope, the ultimate test of worth should be whether we chose to flounder or flourish in the face of adversity.
Learning that lesson is the true value of higher education, not the ingrained sense of pride and entitlement that some seem to take away from it.