After too many years at this job (I am in my mid-40s), I have grown to question higher education in ways that cannot be rectified by a new syllabus, or a sabbatical, or, heaven forbid, a conference roundtable. No, my troubles with this treasured profession are both broad and deep, and they begin with a fervent belief that most of today’s college students, especially those that come to college straight from high school, are unnecessarily coddled. Professors and administrators seek to “nurture” and “engage” and they are doing so at the expense of teaching. The result: a discernable and precipitous decline in the quality of college students. More of them come to campus with dreadful study habits. Too few of them read for pleasure. Too many drink and smoke excessively. They are terribly ill-prepared for four years of hard work, and most dangerously, they do not think that college should be arduous. Instead they perceive college as an overnight recreation center in which they exercise, eat, and in between playing extracurricular sports, they carry books around. If a professor is lucky, the books are being skimmed hours before class.
How do I know that my concerns are not unique to my employer, or my classroom? My students are brutally honest – they tell me with candor and without shame that their peers think of college as a four year cruise without a destination.
No doubt these students deserve some blame for their lethargy, but some culpability lies with their professors, and the administrators who ostensibly but unsuccessfully provide vision and direction. Today’s faculty and administrators capitulate to students’ demands in innumerable ways. They hold classes outside on sunny days, not really caring if there is no blackboard, or if the students are admiring each other instead of the texts to be dissected. They encourage students to think of college as a “comfortable” and “supportive” community, not as a means to acquire necessary skills. Far too many of my colleagues are dialing in – showing up late, popping in videos during class, assigning group projects, or sitting in a circle and asking students how they feel. Why they have abandoned classroom rigor is something that only they can answer. But one answer is simple – students flock to these popular classes, probably because they cater to the students’ worst sensibilities. Homework is minimal, or sometimes optional. Surprise quizzes are considered unfair. Late assignments are not failed. Some grades are even negotiable…
I know lots of academics in various institutions who feel like this. But I guess most of them won’t quit: “better to hold on to nurse”, as Harold Macmillan used to say, “for fear of something worse”.
LATER: Nice email from Roger Whittaker who says: “I think Macmillan was quoting Belloc – one of the Cautionary Tales“.