Student Life: Still More Views

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By John Tierney


Many thanks to the many readers who wrote in response to my recent post about contemporary student life and my plea for help sorting out the messages we're getting from assorted media about it.  Some of you wrote at surprising and gratifying length; you were especially kind to take the time to share your carefully considered thoughts.

As this is my last post here as a guest this week on Jim's blog, I want to thank him for this great opportunity.  He has an outstanding readership, if the many fine folks who were kind enough to respond to me on various items are any indication. 

Most of what I received after the first wave of replies was from current college students and recent graduates.  I am not happy to report that, to a person, they agreed with the overall contours of the picture painted by the media reports I aggregated.  This is depressing. (There is one reply, at the very bottom of this post, from someone who has been a tenured college professor for over two decades.  Her view, unfortunately, is no more encouraging.)

Interestingly, however, some of the students argued, essentially, that college life may be decadent "education-free zones," but, gosh, hasn't that always been the case?  Others offered some amusing, and appropriate, push-back on the whole wasted-time issue:  Every cohort of high-school students and collegians wastes time!  How did YOUR generation do it?  (Hmmmmm . . .  Gee, unfortunately, my time here expires soon and there's no time to get into that now.   Let's move on.)

Let's start off with a bang.  Here's a reply from an American college student, a junior, who is currently studying abroad in Beijing.

I must say from my time spent at my U.S college's campus that the ideas you presented in your article are SPOT ON. Drinking, drugs, sex, T.V, and Facebook are literally a plague to my generation's college students. Reading is something that is rarely done for class, or done outside of it for that matter, there seems to be this universally held idea that you take classes to fulfill major requirements, and get a good grade; the learning and intellectual self-betterment aspect to the "learning" experience is something that is lacking thoroughly in the mind's of college students. You had a single quote which I think really sums up what is going on "They cannot talk about anything outside their own closed little worlds." Students I go to school with can talk about Gossip Girl, The Jersey Shore, America's Next Top Model, College Football, Baseball, Soccer, and each other for hours on end. However, ask them about the Citizens United case, how many middle eastern countries we are fighting in right now, the unemployment rate, what the current national deficit is, and you are met with blank stares or a laugh, shrugged shoulders and an "I don't know". 
For as large as our economy is, for as big as our cars are, for as much infrastructure and wealth our nation has accumulated, how many things we own, the electronics, the technological innovations, it seems like for all these "measures of wealth" have been accumulated at the expense of our minds and curiosity. Troubling, very troubling.

Another current college student writes:

I read your blog post and just wanted to let you know that I, for one, liked it.  . . .  I'm a senior in college right now, at what can be described as an "elite institution," the kind with posh old buildings and an oversized endowment. And even though I like to think of myself as dedicated to my studies and I do think I learn a lot at my school, a lot of what you referenced rings true. Here's my best shot at making sense of all of it:

First off, I think it's certainly true that some professors don't bother challenging the students enough, because it would mean that they would have to undertake extra effort they're not willing to put in and for which they won't be rewarded. The incentives are just too skewed, and academics are rewarded far too highly for good research and far too little for good teaching. But then again, this is hardly news: we might have a better sense now that this is a problem than in the past, but the incentive system has always been like that. So while this is an ongoing problem in higher education, and one that I find very serious, I don't see why it should be any more severe today than it was in the past.

As for the excessive partying: sure, students party a lot. Much more than they should. But again, is this so new? Surely my generation did not invent shenanigans? Plus, why should it be the college's fault? I often think that hundreds of 18-22 year-olds, fresh out of home, are going to behave irresponsibly no matter which environment you put them in. Perhaps access to alcohol and other drugs is easier now than it was in the past, or harder and hence it's more more enticing, or something like that. I don't know.

But what I think are the most puzzling and contradictory pieces of evidence are what you cited on stress and academics. How are students both more stressed and spending less time on their studies? Of course, it's possible that students stress over things other than their academics, such as whether they'll make it through college financially, a big concern these days. But I think there's at least one other explanation, and the key is procrastination.

Now, I don't pretend that my generation has invented procrastination, but I'd argue that we've taken it to another level. Possibilities are seemingly endless: Youtube! Facebook! The news! TV! Video game! Skype! Cell phone! And, yes, good old-fashioned face-to-face interaction with friends, too. But the stimulus overload modern technology has, I think, allowed us to up the ante.

So that's (one of the reasons) why we're spending less time studying. But it can also easily lead to more stress. The longer you procrastinate, the longer you have that five-page paper hovering over your head. Procrastination is different from a well-timed study break: it leads to more stress, not less. And what is worse, it might even be that we have more things to procrastinate for than ever before: not just academics in the strictest sense, but also summer job applications, study abroad applications, scholarship applications, fellowship applications, job-after-college/grad school applications... how many Facebook status updates are all of these combined?

I don't know an easy way out. Perhaps psychologists would know how to help. If so, we need to hear more from them. But I should stop procrastinating. It's way past my bedtime. See, if I spent less time on Facebook, where one of my friends had linked your blog post, I would long be asleep by now...

A student from another eastern liberal-arts college writes the following, confirming the point about distractions:

[T]echnologyhas also given us huge sources of distraction: Reddit, MetaFilter,
Slashdot, and other aggregator sites constantly serve up new and
interesting content, Facebook provides constant social updates, as well
as shared links, and I can (and have) spent hours watching random clips
on YouTube. I have to leave my laptop at the library during finals so
that I get enough sleep at home; it's common to see self-imposed exiles
from Facebook as papers or projects near deadline. Also, because we can
start and finish papers from our dorm rooms the night before they are
due, students have (surprise!) often taken that option, even though the
resulting work is never going to come close to our best. Strong essays
require time, editing, and careful consideration, all of which are
neglected in deadline work.

Another student writes that, in his experience, teachers make all the difference,  turning a student on to the joy and excitement of learning.  But, addressing more directly the topics raised in the earlier post, he says:

The truth is that students do what is necessary to pass and don't bother to learn anything else. That is simply the truth. Why is it that students don't care? Because they simply are not interested. We are interested in knowing all that we must do in order for us to be successful.  Anything else that is outside of that we find to be unnecessary.
. . .
And I also want to tell you that not only students at your school spend large amounts of time watching television and facebook and being unproductive. All students do that. Maybe what they need -- what all students need -- is a warning. To take life more seriously.

Thanks for the article. I will subscribe to the Atlantic now. Thanks.

A recent graduate from a major research university writes:

I took many classes, in many different departments, both survey and upper division. There were many students that were thoughtful, interested, and hardworking.  They did assigned readings, asked good questions in class, were ready to debate and argue, etc. THE MAJORITY WERE NOT. My friend and I would complain. We always thought that, yeah, you have to put up with people who aren't really interested in learning in high school, but then they get weeded out in college. Not the case, at least not at [my university]. My friend has since gone on to law school at a top 40 program. He thought that by graduate studies, those TRULY uninterested would have gone another way. Yet he still finds himself, at times, sitting next to students who have no intellectual curiosity or even a strong work ethic.

I had one political science professor, who in a moment of candor during office hours, noted that when he taught at Princeton, he taught the same identical class (intro to political philosophy) and in the identical way. It was no harder at Princeton, and he was no different. The only difference he noted was the caliber of the students. Whereas at [the state university] there was a bell-curve distribution of a few As, some Bs, and lots of Cs and Ds, at Princeton, there were hardly any slacker students. The biggest benefit of going to one of those schools, he claimed, was that the students themselves are much more interested and push the professor, the other students, and the class as a whole, to do more.

I knew I had chosen the wrong institution to attend, when in my sixth upper division course, you could still hear students snickering in the back of the room when you actually engaged the prof on the material and outside readings. Senior year of college at a top-tier research school, and the bulk of the students could not even imagine doing the full [assigned] readings, let alone outside readings, secondary readings, engaging in thoughtful discussion! Heck, they still complained, out loud, to TAs and profs about having to write papers ("Come on Dr. X, I don't have time to write five pages. Can't you make it two?").

I was not only embarrassed by half of the people in my classes (and I can't stress enough that these were *upper division* classes), but by the profs that lowered the bar and made it boring for the rest of us.

The majority of my undergraduate career was a sham.

A veteran, who left college after feeling unprepared by his high-school experience and yet, after his service, eventually enrolled at a major research university, wrote movingly about his inadequate high-school preparation and the desperate economic straits that he and so many from his generation face. "We, as students entering the work force simply can't follow the path of our parents; the "Golden Age" as Robert Reich has called it is over and the job security that once existed is a thing of the past." He then went on to say:

All that aside, there is still the obvious problem of living in the internet age. What really shocked me when I returned to school at the University of [a western state], was the number of students with laptops (and they aren't taking class notes in my classes) and the addictive use of cell phones for texting. Students simply aren't engaged in their classes, whatever the reason. They are distracted to no end! It makes me wonder if there is any means of empirically measuring the level of distraction faced by students, besides an increase in medication for ADD?

Additionally, I've lost count of the number of teachers who have pointed out (as early as high school) that kids are overly dependent on calculators. They simply do not know how to do mental math,they are not being challenged in K-12, and we as a society are breeding cognitive laziness in our students by not challenging them and demanding more work. I also question if the move away from note-taking with pen and paper is further contributing to this problem of laziness? (LifeHacker seems to think so.) In fact, come to think of it, I wonder how may students even bother to take notes themselves as opposed to just asking a class mate to email them a copy (or worse yet, buying the notes online from a website that specializes in such a service).

I hope we unravel this mystery soon, especially since I'm at the stage where I'm ready to start my own family. I'd be lying if I didn't say that I'm afraid of what career options will even be available for my (potential) children, especially when considering the shrinking middle class.

And, finally, for those who despaired, after reading the original post, about the state of contemporary American education, let me highlight these last two replies, both from recent college graduates, which prove what we all know -- that there some incredibly bright and clear-thinking young people coming out of America's colleges.

While thinking about the nature of data I could offer, I realized that nobody is in a position to offer true longitudinal insight simply because nobody is the same person in the same educational institution for any period of time long enough to make generalizations. I graduated from college a mere year and one half ago and thought my classmates were pretty outstanding. I now regularly mock undergrads. But that may have something to do with where I am now, and that is ultimately the data I can offer: cross-sectional observation. I went to a private, top 20 liberal arts school in New England for undergrad. I now attend a large state university as a grad student, and what I have to say about the quality of undergraduate education between the two institutions is this: state schools suck. More specifically, my TA friends tell me that the majority of undergrads fail at writing coherent essays and a number in every class don't understand the concept of paragraphs. Professors, moreover, fail to create meaningful assignments. The excellent Ken Robinson video helped me understand what that last sentence means in practice: professors at the state school do not expect divergent thinking from undergrads. My own experience as an undergrad could not have been more different.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that yes, there are clearly two tracks in the educational system, as Robinson points out. But returning to where I started, I am skeptical of studies that compare subjective feelings across different groups of students over time, and even more skeptical of individuals who try to make those claims based on anecdotal, longitudinal evidence. Are students smarter or more stressed or promiscuous or motivated than a decade ago? Who knows, who knows, yes, and who knows. Cross-sectional data is all anyone can really provide. There clearly are trends, and I think the most observable ones are social; the intellectual quality of students remains constant but social expectations change.

As a final point, let me ask you this: students today do indeed spend an offensive amount of time on facebook, etc, but when you were a student, how did you waste your time? I'm sure you didn't spend every minute reading the classics. And even if you did, well, our generation has those people too. You're just more likely to find them writing computer code at 2 AM than reading Chaucer. So, how did the bottom 95 percent of your generation waste their time?

[Ahem. Choke.]  Let's move on.

In your guest blog for James Fallows at The Atlantic, you ask readers to "help...sort through [some disparate things you've read in recent months]." I would like to offer my thoughts.

First, I'd like to suggest that we all take the media reporting about education with a grain of salt. The New York Times, in particular, has a history of publishing sensationalist articles on higher education and public education. It employs columnists to write about education even when they have no background or expertise in the area, and it picks up on the most shocking psychological studies or achievement data it can without thoroughly interrogating methodology. Why? I can only imagine it drives page views. Articles on education routinely top the New York Times most emailed list; the more dramatic the titles the better. Education is something with which we all have first-hand experience, imagined expertise, and deeply entrenched views, so small wonder that we like to read and discuss education-related topics. The New York Times and other publications capitalize on that. But when you read what they produce, remember that, and read skeptically.

However, for the sake of argument, let's assume that all of the reporting is accurate and the studies are well-conducted. A coherent picture can still be drawn from from the reports you cite. Here it is: at every level of education, from public kindergartens all the way through to the highest of higher education in the form of post-doctoral students, the U.S. has an "education-industrial" complex--a massive, lucrative system that now exists only for its own perpetuation (not to provide quality education).

At the level of primary and secondary education, one of the culprits is the teachers' unions. Rarely are the interests of the teachers and the interests of the students aligned, and teachers' unions (at least in the districts I experienced) aggressively block reform. But it's not just the teachers' unions.

You don't teach in a public school, so you probably devise your own curriculum, teach books you love, ask rigorous questions. In the school where I taught, the district purchased an appallingly low-level scripted curriculum from College Board, blindly trusting that it would prepare our students for AP classes and college in the way that College Board advertised. (It would take pages to describe the horrors of the curriculum, but just as an example, it asked that students read one--only one--novel during their entire freshman year.) (Untenured) teachers could be fired for straying from the curriculum.

I don't know how much College Board made from the contract, though fascinatingly the textbooks were "consumable" (read: disposable) and had to be purchased every year. The purchasing decision was made by one of our many Deputy Superintendents for Something Important. Public school districts are as larded with highly-paid, unnecessary administrative positions as colleges are, and it is the teachers and students who suffer under the weight of their meddling and misinformed decisions while curriculum and training companies like College Board reap the benefits.

Who else feeds at the public education trough? Take a close look at all the standardized testing. States contract with companies to produce, administer, and score the tests, or they pay their own employees to do it. Last year, my school purchased a computerized test that promised to prepare our students for the state standardized test--provided we paid them for access to their tests, scoring, and a nifty data system. For best results, we were asked to administer the tests on a monthly basis.

Public education is designed to continually grow larger and to pay more employees at higher salaries. Private companies wiggle their way in with no-bid contracts (they don't have to prove that their curricula work). The incentives in place for these system-controlling stakeholders don't emphasize student achievement.

As a result, the average level of preparation for students entering college is lower than it used to be--and certainly lower than it should be. Students' lack of ability is met with disbelief and anger by their freshman year professors in college (or, more commonly nowadays, their graduate TAs) who claim: "You should have learned this in high school, and I'm sure as heck not going to teach it to you now." And that's fair, on some level: most college professors or TAs aren't equipped to teach the basic reading and writing skills some of their students need. But if you want to talk about stressed-out college students, imagine being asked to do intellectually complex tasks for which you were utterly unprepared, and then told you weren't going to get help. Think you'd feel anxious? (Imagine if you'd wanted for your whole life to be a doctor or a lawyer, and you knew you needed straight As, but you had no idea how to earn them!)

In years past, I'd like to think these students wouldn't have been accepted to four-year colleges. They would have begun at community colleges with remedial classes and then moved on to universities. But colleges make a lot of money from their students, especially since student loans are widely available. Many four year colleges offer remedial, no-credit classes, which they force students to pay for and take before they are even allowed to start spending their tuition money on credit-earning courses. If these students were entitled, pot-smoking suburbanites, I wouldn't care so much. But many of them are first-generation college students who were failed first by their public education, and who will be under a mountain of debt before they even begin to earn their degrees. Though no one ever talks about it, I firmly believe--based solely on anecdotal data, but still--that crummy colleges prey on first-generation students who pay their tuition for one, two, or even three years before they drop out. The college gets money; the student loses everything. Colleges face no consequences for failing their most vulnerable students.

College is big business. Because there are so many students, because there is an excessive focus on every student attending college, because there are fewer vocational programs (even though data suggest that they don't reduce college degrees, but they do help students find work), because the job market suffers from credential inflation, and because student loans flow freely, any college can open its doors and find paying students. It doesn't matter if these colleges educate the students very well; it doesn't matter if they end up at the bottom of the US News and World Report rankings. They'll always be able to find students.

Statistically speaking, there is a "long tail" of low-performing colleges that serve low-performing students. It's possible this long tail is responsible for the claim that students show no significant improvement in their academic skills (on average). I guarantee that if you studied students at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, you'd see an uptick in their critical thinking and complex reasoning, as long as your test was well-constructed. But Colorado Mountain College? Metro State in Denver? Probably not.

Don't even get me started on the nightmarish situation at law schools and business schools, or the grim exploitation of graduate students in the humanities and social sciences who today take on the teaching responsibilities that ought to lie with full professors. All of these problems, though, are symptoms of the same root cause: the schools that can suck people in and take their money are rewarded, almost without regard for the quality of education they provide or the value of the degree they offer upon graduation. It's difficult to provide high-quality education. If you can get the same results--the same enrollment--with bells and whistles like rec centers or flashy dining halls, why do the hard work of providing meaningful degrees?

Finally, at the end of your blog post, you get around to what most education commenters ultimately conclude: it's probably the students' fault. They're lazier, more distracted, more stressed-out while studying less(!). Though there are obvious systemic flaws in education, you choose to lay the responsibility at our feet. (I say "our" because I graduated in 2008, so I think I am still close enough to be part of the generation you impugn.) Interestingly, most middle-aged commentators also do this when discussing our failure to find jobs--even in this economy, many of you argue, we should be trying harder.

I can't defend the drinking, the drugs, or the lack of studying, except to say that my generation is in a tough spot. And I can't speak for everyone. But as a young American, what I can tell you is that I love this country; I feel an enormous responsibility to help it, and my fellow citizens, rise to our potential. But I am a creature of my upbringing: I'm motivated by feeling special and valued, so I don't want to be a 9-5 cog in an office somewhere. I believe that my school and my work should give me something more than a salary--intellectual stimulation, personal recognition, room for advancement. I'm willing to work hard, but not mindlessly. And I'm very, very angry. Not necessarily at you, for your piece didn't rise to this level, but at all the commentators who mention in passing that the previous generation has left quite a mess for my generation to clean up. It's empty posturing, theatrical hand-wringing, and it actually enrages me. Your generation not only left us with a terrible mess, you stripped us of the skills to face that mess by helping to build an education system that fails us at every turn. And your generation did this while plumping up our self-esteem and promising us that we could do anything, be anything we wanted. So forgive us if we're confused and frightened; forgive us if we take off a few months after we graduate from college to try to figure out how we're supposed to navigate the world we have with what little you gave us; forgive us if we'd rather check Facebook than read the news that tells us we have no hope of "winning the future" like the President wants us to do.

I don't want to end on a depressing note, so I will also say that I am proud of my generation. Commentators will never write about it, because it doesn't drive page views, but my generation is not just a wave of unproductive Facebook checkers. (Who created Facebook, anyway? Oh, that's right, it was a Millenial.) We're also artists who put out comedy sketches and dance routines on YouTube and mp3s on MySpace. We're entrepreneurs, some of whom leave good jobs or never take them at all in favor of starting companies or building games and iPhone apps. We're public servants, thousands of whom take to inner city classrooms every year to try to fix the mess your generation made. We are scientists and engineers; we found NGOs and non-profits; we write books and poems. We're driven by those same things you lament--our belief that we're special, that we're important, that we have something to say, and that we ought to have work that we love--as well as by the qualities your forget--our ingenuity, our facility with technology, and our ability to multi-task.

Our passion is rarely activated, it's true, but when it is, it's by recognition, praise, the successful conquering of goals, rather than by money. Maybe that's the difference between your generation and mine. It's certainly part of the reason that I'm confident we'll be able to dismantle the education-industrial complex your generation built and replace it with different economic and educational systems that incentivize effectiveness.

Hope that helps you figure it all out.

Thank you for that incredibly thoughtful, encouraging, and insightful comment, dear reader.  Here, finally, is a view from a longtime college professor.  Unfortunately, like many of the student comments above, this one will not leave us here on a high note

As a tenured professor with a 22-year career teaching history at a "comprehensive public university," here are my reactions to Mr. Tierney's interesting musings on Contemporary Student Life. Most of the articles he cites are very important warnings for American society that unfortunately are largely being ignored.

The growth in administrators, especially at institutions like mine, where faculty have been furloughed or seen pay and pension cuts, with more to come, is especially demoralizing. And with all their flaws, unions are all the state between many instructors at all levels and even worse gutting of pay and benefits. Only the elite institutions will be able to attract really good, dedicated faculty. Even the best instructors, with tenure, at institutions like mine risk burnout, especially as they increasingly pile on intersession and summer classes to try to maintain their standard of living in the face of deteriorating pay, a growing issue on campuses like mine.

As for issues related to student learning, study time, and emotional health, the real problem stems from three things. (1) Most of the negative changes I have seen in college education began in the period when college aid, which tended to be dependent on performance in school, but which did not burden students with heavy debts upon graduation, was converted to loans, which are not usually as closely linked to getting good grades, but do burden students with debts. Result? Students want to get through school as quickly and efficiently as possible, to minimize their debt, and they are less concerned about grades. So they put more time into work, to try to work their way through, or overload their schedules, to get more units for each semester's loan money, and less time into study.

(2) The growth of administrator insistence on assessing outcomes, and the expansion of student evaluations as a means to achieve this. Faculty members, especially lecturers and untenured junior colleagues, are especially affected by this, but with the rise of merit pay, we all are. How can a faculty member demand high standards, assign a lot of work, push students into new areas of thought that may be uncomfortable for them, or teach "boring" material that may be of great educational value, if their jobs, tenure, and pay all are dependent on the evaluations that students are going to give them? Most students, especially because of #1 above, are concerned with getting through, and are not thinking of the long term. Study after study has shown that students evaluate classes and instructors based on what they think they're going to get for a grade in the class, whether the class is "interesting" and "fun," and whether they think the instructor "cares about them as a person." So naturally instructors are going to focus on these things and ease up on demanding critical thinking and assigning work that forces students to think hard and communicate well.

(3) The rise of media, and especially social media, as enormous "time sinks" competing with study time. Not only do these affect negatively students' ability to relate to each other or to their instructors, but they also tempt students into multi-tasking in ways that erode concentration and focus. When you add to these three factors the general decline in respect for teachers at all levels, something I see in my students' comportment in class even at the college level, the ability of instructors to teach effectively and rigorously is fast disappearing.

So how can things improve? Self discipline as individuals and a society, and more thought to long-term consequences in the real world, and less to short-term gratification, would be an excellent start. Empower instructors and demand that students respect them would help as well, and reduce the cost of higher education, with more student aid and fewer loans, would also go a long way toward aiding students to focus on school and reducing stress on them.
 
Good luck with that!

Many thanks to all of you.

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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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