Contemporary Student Life

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by John Tierney

It may be that, like me, you don't quite know what to make of articles that have appeared recently about the state of contemporary secondary and post-secondary education. But maybe you can!  If so, help me sort through it. I've spent my entire professional life as a teacher -- for over twenty years at the college level, and for the last nine years at a high school.  Despite all that, I still don't know what to make of all this.

So, I'm just going to call your attention here to some disparate things I've read in recent months, without trying to weave them together in a coherent essay.  If you have thoughts, please let me hear them.

  • An article in Thursday's New York Times reported on a survey showing that large numbers of  college freshmen consider themselves depressed and thoroughly stressed-out; many are already using, or are in need of, psychiatric medication. 

    It's easy to understand how this could be true: college life can be stressful, especially for freshmen who are making all sorts of life adjustments.  And as Tamar Lewin, the article's author, notes, "The economy has only added to the stress, not just because of financial pressures on their parents but also because the students are worried about their own college debt and job prospects when they graduate."  (Anecdotal evidence -- and some of the reporting noted below -- certainly suggests that there are lots of college students who aren't stressed-out at all.  Strung-out, maybe, but not stressed.  Or maybe their stress comes from being strung-out.  Who knows?)

    The same article notes that while many students give a thumbs-down about their emotional health, they think they're pretty swell in other ways.  Lewin writes: "While first-year students' assessments of their emotional health were declining [from the results in earlier surveys], their ratings of their own drive to achieve, and academic ability, have been going up, and reached a record high in 2010, with about three-quarters saying they were above average."  (That's America for you: we all think we're above-average drivers, too.  We all think we're residents of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."  But I digress.)  Many of us don't really know ourselves well.  To wit:
  • Last week, an Associated Press article by Eric Gorski reported: "A study of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years." Gorski's article reported on findings of a new book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa titled Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.  Apparently, Arum and Roksa spread the blame, pointing to (1) students who don't study much and seek easy courses, and (2) a culture at colleges and universities that values research over good teaching.  Doesn't sound good, does it?  Keep reading.  It gets worse.

  • Last August, I saw this review in the Wall Street Journal of a new book by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education?  How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids -- And What We Can Do About It.  That subtitle really sticks it to the colleges.  I haven't read the book, but according to the revealing review, Hacker and Dreifus skewer higher education.  The reviewer, MarK Bauerlein, who teaches at Emory University, summarizes their argument this way: "[C]olleges and universities serve the people who work there more than the parents and taxpayers who pay for 'higher education' or the students who so desperately need it."  On the point above, about colleges "valuing research over teaching," Bauerlein writes (from a position of experience): "A glance at scholarly journals or university-press catalogs might make one wonder how much of this 'research' is advancing knowledge and how much is part of a guild's need to credentialize its members. In any case, time spent for research is time taken away from students. The remoteness of professors may help explain why about 30% of enrolling students drop out of college only a few months after arriving."  
  • Related to each of the previous two items is this this article that I saw in the New York Times last July, reporting that American colleges and universities are spending a diminishing share of their budgets on instruction and more on administration and recreational facilities for students.

    This is easy to believe.  Have you taken a look lately at a directory of administration (or an organization chart) for a college or university?  There are multiple associate provosts, deputy associates, dozens of deans for this and that, associate deans, etc.  It's quite remarkable, and a far cry from what it was like a mere 25 years ago.  It's ridiculously expensive, duplicative, and (I suspect) sclerotic.  It reminds me of what happened in the federal executive branch (and in many states) over the past half century, with the proliferation there of under secretaries, assistant secretaries, etc., leading to diluted accountability and slower governmental processes.  [See, on this topic, the terrific book by Paul C. LIght and Paul A. Volcker, A Government Ill-Executed, and Light's earlier book, Thickening Government.

    As for the expenditures on fancy recreational facilities for students: I understand the need colleges have to compete for students.  But this rec-race is contributing to what Richard K. Vedder, a professor at Ohio University who studies the economics of higher education, has properly called "the country-clubization of the American university."  Maybe that development also has something to do with the following revelations.

  • Last summer the Boston Globe reported on the results of a study by two University of California economists who found that "over the past five decades, the number of hours that the average college student studies each week has been steadily dropping."  The study found this to be true not just of a particular demographic, but across the board: "No matter the student's major, gender, or race, no matter the size of the school or the quality of the SAT scores of the people enrolled there, the results are the same: Students of all ability levels are studying less."   Are they working out at the rec-plex or doing other things?

  • According to one observer, the decline in studying probably comes less from kids spending too much time on fancy fitness equipment than from their exuberant pursuit of drugs, sex, and rock-'n-roll -- and alcohol.  A book by Craig Brandon, titled The Five-Year Party: How Colleges Have Given Up on Educating Your Child and What You Can Do About It describes America's "alcohol-soaked, sex-saturated, drug-infested campuses" as education-free zones. Let's repeat that: EDUCATION-FREE ZONES.  Admittedly, I haven't read Brandon's book, and the Wall Street Journal, where I read this review of it, may not be the most reliable source for information having to do with higher education, such is the antipathy of many conservatives to contemporary college life.  Still, the book, though obviously somewhat sensationalistic, comes to the same conclusion as the scholarly work of Hacker and Dreifus (above) and confirms the scary view of college life that Tom Wolfe painted in his 2004 novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons
Now, all that adds up to a fairly disturbing view of contemporary college life. I retired from a tenured professorship in 2000, so I cannot fairly say that I am totally up-to-date on what's happening on college campuses.  But I'm willing to say that none of this surprises me. It rings true.

I know this post is long, but permit me to call attention to one final point -- this one about the life of high-school students, about which less is written (or, at least, less seems to appear in the popular press). 

Some of you probably have seen, or are familiar with, a provocative documentary film that's making the rounds among educators and high-school audiences across the country.  It's called "Race to Nowhere."  I recently saw it.  It depicts the hyper-competitive environment that America's high-school students face today.  (Here's a recent article from the Boston Globe about the film and the reaction to it from students, educators, and parents.)  

According to the film, the race to get into the "best" colleges leaves students physically exhausted, psychically and emotionally depleted.  The pressure is pervasive and relentless. Moreover, students say, the heavy current emphasis throughout elementary and secondary education on standardized testing has them cramming facts into their heads for years, ready to be regurgitated on exams.  But they don't really learn anything.  (Maybe that self-understanding is what leads many of them, when they get to college, to be depressed and more stressed. See the first item above.)  

So, what do I make of this?  Again, I'm not sure.  I teach at an "elite" (effete?) independent school for girls in the Boston area.  The tuition is in excess of thirty grand. So, this is not a typical American high school.  (That's partly why I need help sorting all this out.)  Some of the students I teach work really hard.  They're good, diligent students. I'm happy to teach them and am proud of their accomplishments.  

But, my sense is that most of the students at this school spend enormous amounts of time watching television, checking out Facebook, and otherwise engaging in totally unproductive activity. They certainly don't read anything!  In fact, I would say that the number one problem in contemporary American education is that students do not read enough.  Their reading comprehension is horrible.  Their vocabularies are impoverished.  They cannot talk about anything outside their own closed little worlds. 

Now, maybe my sense of this is distorted by the peculiar environment in which I find myself working.   But I have the uncomfortable feeling that this larger problem -- the waste of time on television and Facebook and video games, and, worst of all, the absence of any reading life -- is endemic among young people today.   If so, we're in big trouble.  They don't know anything and, worse yet, they seem uninterested in anything. 

What to do about this? The Tiger Moms of the world may, or may not, have the right approach.  But the rest of us haven't exactly figured it out, either. 


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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