Student Life: More Views

By John Tierney

I knew that my earlier post on contemporary student life would provoke comment, even outrage.  And it came -- some of it predictable and expected, some of it a surprise.
From the "expected" pool:

My daughter is a freshman at Barnard, and is bursting with excitement about all she is learning. When she came home for break, I had to physically stop her from listing the states and counties in India. More substantively, she gave me a long and thoughtful review of the long-term trauma inflicted on India and Pakistan by partition, with particular
emphasis on the effects on women.

As the parent of a college student, and as someone who has been deeply engaged with her friends and their families over the years, I strongly disagree with Tierney and would be happy to rebut. Quite frankly, I think these kids are way more educated than I was at that age, way more thoughtful about what they want to learn and how they want to learn it,
and way more willing to seek out extracurricular education

I expected that lots of readers would write in with some version of this comment.  Yes, of course, there are many hundreds of thousands of very bright, eager, hard-working students out there who are learning an incredible amount and who can put their parents to shame.   

I suppose the question is whether Barnard students -- or the brightest, most diligent students on any campus -- are the norm.  What is the norm?  Will we hear from the parents who feel the tuition dollars they pay are wasted on their kid, who sits in his dorm room all day playing video games and who drinks himself into a dither every night?  They're not the parents who  boast to their friends about their offspring's intellectual excitement -- nor, probably, have they ever had the pleasure of engaging with their kid in a discussion about partition of the Indian subcontinent. 
From the "unexpected-but-unsurprising" pile, this response from a reader who thought my earlier post was insufficiently balanced and scrupulous, and who starts his reply by mocking my loose assessment of the situation:

"It rings true." That's the sort of analytical rigor I've come to expect from elite girls private schools. Really, Dr. Tierney, that entire post was a horror show of overly credulous reading, research from dubious and deliberately provoking books, and a total absence of consideration of provisos, qualifications, and alternate opinion which are the mark of quality social science. You owe your readership, James Fallows, and the academy so much more. I'm genuinely disappointed.

Two points in response:

(1) I'm pretty sure I made it clear at the top of the post that I wasn't aiming even to write a coherent essay, much less one that would make any pretense at "analytical rigor" or "quality social science."  Rather, I was simply pulling together articles about contemporary collegiate life and asking for reactions to them.  Calm down.

(2) Frankly, I don't owe "the academy" anything.  What a preposterous notion!  As for Jim Fallows: I owe him many things, including my sincere thanks for letting me into this space for the week.  But it's not clear to me that I owe him the particular model of blog post you envision. And as for the readership: I'm sorry, but I cannot control your expectations or your disappointment.  Go read something you consider measured and balanced until your blood pressure settles down!

Also, from another "expected" pile.  A widely beloved and prominent professor at a small liberal-arts college in New England writes in, saying that the view of college life presented in the earlier post rings true with him, too.  He then adds:

You know, I have a special place in my heart for our [Asian] students, who exhibit few of the troublesome traits you lament. The American students are nice kids, and I like them, but I don't respect them. I guess that's the thing.

I laughed when his reply went on to give me useful advice on blogging:

Here's a tip: you are way too honest. Three times in your piece you say that you have not read a book or something like that. Never make such an admission. Lie. That's what they all do. Do you really believe that Krugman, Will, Krauthammer, Noonan, et al., have really read all the books they cite in their rants? Why should you be the honest one?
. . .
Often students preface a comment or question with an apologetic "this may be wrong, but..." or  even "this may be stupid, but...."  I come down hard on them when they do that. "Never apologize," I tell them, "it makes you sound weak. You've lost the argument before you even try to make it.  Most of intellectual life is bluffing," I tell them, "so start right now. You don't know more than I do, but I want you to act like you do. You must try to intimidate me; not give me the upper hand with the first wimpy words out of your mouth."

Clearly, here's a professor who is intent on educating the "whole person," not simply instructing on course material.  (All should their kids are lucky enough to end up in the classroom of such an educator.)  Incidentally, his timely advice is responsible for the stuckthrough word of apology to the "genuinely disappointed" reader above.  This professor is right: there's no traction in being a milksop.  (Future respondents, consider yourselves warned. No more "Mr. Almost-Nice Guy.")
Finally, under the "delightful surprise" category of responses comes this, from a professor at a distinguished Canadian university:

For a fresh perspective on the education debate, I highly recommend this short YouTube video by Sir Ken Robinson.

This turns out to be a video of a lecture by Robinson, animated by RSA (the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce).  It is, quite simply, one of the most instructive and enlightening video-lectures I've ever seen. It's also enormously entertaining. Even if I learned nothing else from this week of blogging here (though, thanks to readers, I learned much), being exposed to this video would alone have made it completely worthwhile. 

Take time to watch it here.  And you might check out some of the other videos RSA has posted on YouTube and/or go to the RSA's own website for more.

Presented by

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.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

More in National

From This Author

Just In