American Culture

A vision of students today: the out-of-touch geezer perspective

Our friend Ubertramp sent along this little video, which certainly provides food for thought:

There’s much to empathize with here. 19th century educational structure – check. Class sizes – check. Ludicrousness of testing models – punch that chad hard. Textbook costs? Student loan debt? Job market evolving so fast colleges can barely keep up? Check, check, and check.But there’s a tone here that troubles me. The project acknowledges a variety of problems, and does so in a way that suggests a fair-minded ambivalence in places. On the whole, though, I feel like there’s a failure to accept responsibility by the generation of students on camera. If I’m missing something let me know, but in the meantime I made a few notes.

1:19: “200 students made 367 edits to this document.” Great. How many were factually accurate? How many involved basic grammatical errors? How many displayed the sort of higher-order analytical capability that we once associated with university-level work? If these aren’t fair questions, then why has the sequence failed to adequately communicate its point?

1:24: “…and surveyed themselves.” Of course they did. Because surveys are how this generation makes determinations about value.

1:36: “18% of my teachers know my name.” That’s bad. Not surprising, but bad. And large class sizes have always been one of my bugaboos, so I hear your pain. But how many of your professors’ names do you know? I once had a student tell me that I was the only one of her teachers whose name she knew. So maybe this cuts both ways.

1:40: “I complete 49% of the readings assigned to me.” That’s bad. And that’s … wait – whose fault is that?

1:45: “Only 26% are relevant to my life.” And here’s where the train really jumps the tracks. Frankly, I never met a college student who was sufficiently capable of making this statement. I was a pretty bright college student and I had no feckin’ clue. For every thing I was right about, there were probably five I was wrong about. That “relevant to my life” thing requires you to have remarkable self-awareness and a time machine, and this is why we don’t let students make all the decisions about their curriculum. They simply aren’t experienced enough to know what’s best for them.

If this makes me a pompous, out-of-touch geezer, so be it. Check back with me in the 30 years.

2:00: “I will read eight books this year…” Okay, so what’s the solution? I mean, I’m getting the point being made about the disconnect. Totally. But the tone seems to suggest that the people making these media consumption choices are somehow lacking all agency in the process? Hmmm.

2:20: Multi-tasking sequence. Well, I get that you’re busy. But let’s look closer at the multi-tasking issue, which is a hellish drain on efficiency. I’ve seen studies that show anywhere from 20-60% efficiency loss depending on complexity of the tasks and how many things are being done at once. So let’s pause here and ask: what’s really the question we need to be considering?

2:46: “I’m a multi-tasker. I HAVE to be.” Well, yeah, unless you’re willing to sacrifice TV, dedicated music listening, Facebooking, IMing, texting, surfing and the like for your education. I get how college is. I went there. Then I went back and got an MA. Then I went back to get some more letters after my name. I made my decisions. Sometimes I slacked the work. Sometimes I goofed off. Sometimes I partied the night before a test and sometimes my grade suffered. But I never pointed the finger at anybody but myself. Making decisions and living with the consequences is part of being an adult.

So let’s think hard about the phrase “I have to be.”

3:24: “I did not create the problems…but they are my problems.” Yes to a large part, but no to a small part. There’s no doubt this generation needs to sue their parents and the educational systems they grew up in for malpractice, and to say they’re now paying the price for other people’s mistakes is putting it mildly.

However, once you recognize your condition it’s up to you to deal with it. Just a moment ago you were telling me that you don’t read books, but you spend massive time on Facebook. That’s a problem that you create anew every day, isn’t it?

The video demonstrates a fair measure of awareness about the limitations of technology, at least, although I’m waiting for the moment where we all decide to own the situation.

31 replies »

  1. Sam,

    Thanks for this post. It illustrates the ever-increasing narcissism of the current batch of college students, which seems to be fostered from the beginning of school (if my kindergarten-teaching friends are to be believed) all the way through the new crop of employees entering the workforce. There seems to be an increasingly narrow focus in people on what is immediately relevant to each of us ‘right now’, which leaves little room for a wider perspective or any sort of intellectual growth. Technology, while extremely worthwhile (I am certainly no Luddite) allows each of us to have everything immediately with little effort. We have a world where our personal views and opinions are considered just as valid as more-educated views and opinions, where students (and more importantly, their parents) are allowed to dictate what is important and what isn’t in an educational setting, resulting in a ever-increasingly myopic generations focussed focussed more and more on the importance of thier opinions. I know, I know, every generation says this about the subsequent generations. I hate to be the grumpy old lady, but “kids these days!”
    There is such a sense of entitlement to the comments – the students seem to believe that they attend school to be served without doing anything to deserve it. Where is the understanding that college is a privilege and that is a professor does not know their name, perhaps it is a failing on the students’ part?
    You have addressed this sort of thing in previous posts about working with the younger generation – the fact that they thrive on praise, expect rewards simply for showing up, etc.
    I cannot even find words to express what I want to say – that is why you are the writer and not me – but I hope to read some more comments here that might make me see this in a different light. I feel exceptionally annoyed by those darn kids right now and just want to shake them, tell them that if they don’t feel that anything they are learning is relevant, then get the hell out of school.

  2. Kelly: Actually, I feel kind of helpless in the face of this video. I can carp about some of its pieces, but I think the collective reality of what we have created overwhelms me.

    As I’ve noted before, I tried to be a professor to this cohort and couldn’t take it. One year was all I could handle.

  3. Sam,

    I am reminded of a presentation I attended at DU last spring. This was one of those alumni-networking events (I attended with a friend who had graduated from DU back in the day), and so was a bit fluffy but interesting. Anyway, we are enjoying the talk, and the time came for questions from the audience (the topic really is not important in this situation). A young woman, who had recently graduated (she was maybe 22?) began asking a question. Let me rephrase that – she began rambling on about all the things that she didn’t want to do, or that she seemed to think were beneath her now-prodigious abilities (in the wake of her graduation), meandering around and around some sort of question that finally ended with a simple upturn of her phrasing. Then she sat expectantly waiting. Whne the speaker finally realized that this was all she was to get as a quesiton, she attempted to answer. The young woman interrupted several times, always in a negative bent. I was never sure exactly what the question or the answer was, but I came away with the realization that this current generation (because I see and hear this sort of thing often from younger members of our society) is entirely forcussed on what they do not want to do, what they are too good to do, and what really makes them unhappy. There doesn’t seem to be any focus outside of personal comfort and personal happiness, but they seem to be focussing on the negative side of those things. How does one change this sort of mindset?

  4. Well, one crawls in a time machine, goes back 22 years and starts over.

    If you don’t have a time machine, then a lot of it falls to the organizations these kids are going to be working for to begin evolving them a bit. Failing that, you wait around for life to start bitch-slapping them with reality and see if it takes.

  5. I teach a mix of Millenial and Xer students because of courses I choose to teach. The difference is stark – the Xers may snark about the work at times, but they’re desperate to achieve some success, and they do the work – usually very competently.

    The Millenials give me excuses – and they expect head pats for every damned thing they do – and whine up-line if they don’t get them. They seem incapable of self starting. And they want their hands held every step. And they want the work done for them if it’s too difficult. Or they want high marks for simply trying.

    I’m stopping here. I’m depressing myself….

  6. All of the students in my class this past term were either Xers or Boomers (had a couple of more senior folks I think looking to break into the boardroom). The Mills I had in the grad program a couple years ago weren’t as capable as the Xers (with one wonderful exception) but they weren’t as bad as a lot of the Mills you’re dealing with.

    I imagine I’ll eventually have more Mills if I keep teaching, but my perspective has changed. They’re going to play by the same rules everybody else does, and if it gets me fired, so be it. I’m not teaching those classes for the money.

  7. It drives me absolutely nuts that this is my peer group. Yes, I facebook, write more e-mails than papers and World of Warcraft is slowly taking over my “free” time. But, that’s on me, not the educational system, not my parents, not my professors. That B last semester was my own doing. The lack of personal responsibility that I saw around me as an undergrad drove me up a wall. Some catered to the whining and others didn’t, and that changed how I experienced college and affected (adversely, I’d argue) my education as an undergraduate.

    I don’t know what to do about it, but I listen to my mom who teaches high school talk about her current batch of freshman and I don’t see it getting better any time soon.

  8. Well, it will start getting better soon for teachers at the lower levels. The front edge of the next gen is probably 7ish right now and we’re already seeing some positive changes. Hard to say how much of a change, but fingers crossed.

  9. I’m pretty sure I’m a Mill in Xer’s clothing. 🙂 Or, as Dr. Slammy would probably point out, I’m just a dork. EQ already HAS taken over my free time. I live by e-mail, too.

    I’ve noticed one thing, though. And I think Sam’s text messaging company’s been saying this for a while now. Even e-mail is too “90’s” for some Mills. My younger brother (17 years younger) refuses to even USE email. It’s not “now” enough or something. Like, if yer not hooked up into the uber-gestalt of the moment, whatever you’re saying is just not worthy. Anyone else notice that?

  10. There’s lots of research on the “death of e-mail” out there. When a kid says he or she e-mailed, what they probably mean is that they sent something via Facebook. E-mail isn’t immediate enough – this is a gen that thrives on immediacy, and things like IM and SMS are their face-to-face.

    E-mail is to them what papyrus is to us….

  11. Reagan babies are a coddled generation that has nothing to struggle for, nothing to overcome

    except what happened last week

    its a generation that has enough power to change the world but what do they want to do? download bullshit! get coffee treats in the mail! wear a gold mouthpiece that says ‘upgrade’

  12. I can’t help but think e-mail will come back on vogue once it’s truly mobile. Right now, text messaging fills that gap, right? So there’s still a need to send messages. It’s just the mobility that’s different with e-mail. At least that’s my theory. 🙂

  13. Just think this is the same generation who would rather spend hours playing fake guitar then actually playing a real guitar. I love video games as much as the next guy, but I’ve officially lost faith in America.

  14. OK. I’m going to agree with most of you here on general trends, but let me just introduce a ray of hope, if I may.

    Last summer, I sat down for dinner with some families that included students attending Brown, Chicago, Berkeley, and Michigan. I found them to be very intelligent, very focused, and I know all of them to be hard working. Two of them, for instance, are not enamored of math or science, but they took AP courses in calculus, physics, and chemistry because, in one of them’s words, “What’s the purpose of even attending school if you don’t get as much out of it as you can?” One of these kids, the one at the University of Chicago, has never failed to take four courses per quarter, which is the maximum load, for that same reason.

    So, it’s not ALL bad news. There are millenials out there who are hard working, care about learning, have well-trained minds, and don’t feel the world owes them anything. I don’t know how many there are, but they do exist.

    BTW, Kelly, a story about DU. Another young lady I know (not one of the four referenced above) made the mistake in high school of not taking the most rigorous schedule. Though she made straight As, she was rejected from the most selective schools to which she applied, so she attended DU. She was flabbergasted by what she saw there. What she described was what you described, and it was a new experience for her. She told me that her classes at DU were way easier than even her regular-track prep courses in high school (let alone the AP and honors courses), and that the kids there just didn’t seem to give a flying happy about anything but getting an A they didn’t study for and did no work to earn.

    She transferred to Vassar and earned degrees in math and vocal performance. She’s currently deciding on a graduate school.

    So, there are some Mills who don’t break the mold.

    Let’s just hope there are enough.

  15. JSO: We’re talking about a generation that’s 75-100 million strong, so sure, there are exceptions. Probably a few million of them. And note the schools you’re talking about – that’s exactly where I’d go look if I were hunting for exceptions. The problem is that in a culture like ours, one that’s rabidly anti-intellectual, it’s rarely the cream of the crop that determines our fate. For evidence, look at the results of our last couple elections….

  16. Lamenting the shortcomings of college students today is lost on me. As a person who flunked out of college (I still don’t think I could graduate if I went back), I’m sort of amazed at anybody who graduates. It’s hard work!

    Even those who sleaze their way through are demonstrating ingenuity.

    Sam, I’m not clear — you mention teaching one year in one comment, and, in another, that you’re still teaching. Was the first situation a full-time job and is the second more like a service-oriented thing?

  17. Where’s the X’r / Mill break? I’m wondering if that’s playing into why my experience now is so much better than as an undergrad — I’m constantly one of the, if not the, youngest in the room even in my second year of the program…

  18. The front edge of the Mill gen turns 28 in January. Obviously these things aren’t always clear-cut, but the first birth year was around 1980.

  19. My son is a Mill. He’s very self absorbed, and has this “It’s all about me” attitude. If he doesn’t get his own way, he goes into a major funk, and pouts. On the other hand, he is the brightest kid I know, and I’m not just saying that as a proud father. His excellent prep school education prepared him for the rigors of a classical education(1st year of college), and he’s taken to it like a fish takes to water. I suspect that he’ll do all right, despite all of his whining. However, in my opinion, he’s very spoiled. He also lacks any sense of “street smarts.” Despite all of this, he’s a pretty good kid, and is the happiest kid I’ve ever known.

    He never fails to let me know that I better be nice to him as he gets to choose my nursing home:)


  20. I’m late to this discussion, but the link to this page is being passed forward and yon, so here goes:

    I’m an adjunct and I teach the same kinds of students that are on the video. I think that when you get down to it, the pain they are trying — ackwardly — to express is the pain of their student loan debt.

    Two-thirds (65.7%) of 4-year undergraduate students graduate with some debt, and the average student loan debt among graduating seniors is $19,237 (excluding PLUS Loans but including Stafford, Perkins, state, college and private loans), according to the 2003-2004 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS).

    My students think constantly about the fact that they will be leaving school with $20K + in debt — for an undergraduate education. Over half my students have part-time jobs in addtion to fulltime course loads.
    They are stressed, depressed, and, yes, critical of a system that has shifted the burden of an economy-gone-wrong onto their shoulders.

    I think that it’s a national disgrace that students leave college saddled with so much debt. The students might not be able to articulate the source of their pain, so their message in the video is, understandably, confused. But, yes, I agree that given the amount of debt they will carry after graduation, their teachers should know students’ names, should be mindful that each textbooks cost over $100 (even stupid Interpersonal Communication texts), and should try to put themselves in the students’ shoes every now and then. College today IS NOT the same today as it was when we were undergraduates. It has little to do with cell phones and iPods. It has everything to do with an economy gone mad.

  21. Thanks for posting this, Jen. Our student loan debt situation is in fact a national disgrace, and it’s one of the issues I’m addressing in my Dr. Slammy in 2008 campaign. The platform is getting posted piece by piece, and I encourage you to check back. Education is a very big issue for us here at S&R, and you’ll find stuff that speaks to these issues on a regular basis.

  22. I enjoyed your analysis Sam and agree there is a lack of personal accountability.

    This is one of those moments where I am glad to work with students from a small town, blue-collar institution. For the most part, my students are hard-working, diligent, respectful and eager to please. I do see the entitlement, the I-know-more-than-you mentality and the inability to analyze. I see the differences in the generations. Yet when compared to Xers and Boomers, I find Millennial’s offer creativity, enthusiasm, and an awareness of the whole vs. the individual. Above all, I see young, insecure minds that are desperately seeking leaders to inspire them, to show them an alternative. Obama’s campaign resonates with them for this very reason. We are all seeking someone or something we can believe in. So forgive me for sounding simplistic, but let’s act as the kind of professors, mentors, parents and professionals that inspire. Regardless of the front Millennial’s display to the world, they are young. With youth comes uncertainty and insecurity, no matter your generation.

  23. Yet when compared to Xers and Boomers, I find Millennial’s offer creativity, enthusiasm, and an awareness of the whole vs. the individual.

    Yes on all counts except creativity. Of the four cohorts in the generational cycle the Mills are the least creative, collectively – they’re actually the most conventional. But you make a number of important points.

    I’m glad there are teachers out there who believe in them like you do. As you know, my experience was less happy than yours. I found them willing to be led, so long as you were willing to lead them precisely where they already knew they needed to go. Not true of all of them, of course – no generalization of this sort can be taken as comprehensive – but there was a lot of faith in received notions and very little willingness to question those notions critically.

    Obama has tapped into their innate optimism and their belief that they can be powerful change agents, and if he’s elected he will have a tremendous opportunity to put this generation to work making some important changes for us. If they don’t get this outcome, though, we’ll have to see.

    Fingers crossed.