MIGHT AS WELL

Posted in Rants on October 8th, 2012 by Ed

Teachers spend a lot of time complaining about students. It's a coping mechanism. We work a lot, often without making much, and part of the "compensation" for this job is the feeling that we are making a difference. When that illusion is dealt a blow – say, because the students don't do what we ask of them or clearly give less than no shits – it makes us confront the fact that our lives are pretty much a waste of time. So sometimes we vent. Sometimes we vent a lot. Besides, there's nothing unusual about this relationship. Do doctors not sit around making fun of patients? Lawyers of clients? Service industry employees of customers? Office workers of everyone they have to deal with on the phone every day? Don't take it personally, kids. It's part of the working world. We actually like you and have devoted our lives to trying to help you.

The predominant complaint about college students today (and probably of yesteryear as well) is that they put so little emphasis on academics. Going to class and doing the work we assign is about 7th on their list of priorities, behind drinking, getting laid, football, the Greek system, spring break, "study" abroad, etc. You name it, it has priority over reading, writing papers, studying, attending class, or anything else for which they are ostensibly here. College has ceased to be about education for most students; it's a four (or five) year party, a middle- and upper-class rite de passage of sex, drugs, and shitty club music. There's a reason that the fancy new gym and rec center and Student Union and climbing wall – put climbing walls everywhere, dammit – are the focus of the campus tour. Who cares about the library. It's beside the point.

The thing is, over time I am getting more sympathetic rather than less. I don't condone this attitude – not even a little – but I certainly understand it. In the past decade the cost of higher education has exploded, the benefits of holding a Bachelor's have plummeted, and life after graduation has become a grim prospect involving the phrase "back with my parents" for the majority of students. The job prospects for recent graduates are appalling and unlikely to improve anytime soon. Under the circumstances, it's not hard to understand why fun, albeit very expensive fun, is such a priority; they're not likely to be having much more of it throughout their twenties. Dick Around Abroad programs sound like a great idea once you realize that you're not going to be able to afford a vacation to Spain (or have paid vacation time) with the entry-level job it will take you three years to get.

That's the reality of the economy today, and it is harsh in ways that even people who graduated from college as recently as five years ago may not completely grasp. Part of the surge in interest in college as one long party must stem from a sort of fatalism – undergraduates look ahead and see living in mom's basement, $50-100k or more in student loan debt, unpaid "internships", and, if they're lucky and after a lengthy search, miserable entry level employment. It's easy for me to understand why so many of them conclude that they might as well have some fun while they can. Now, certainly not all students are so rational about their future prospects, but even the most oblivious now have at least a vague sense of foreboding, a poorly defined understanding that after graduation the fun and games are over.

When we complain about their laziness and tell them to work harder, we assume that working harder will lead to better outcomes. Sometimes I catch myself wondering if that's true. Personally, I think that educating oneself and expanding the mind are good in and of themselves and learning for its own sake is an unqualified good. Assuming that a lot of 18-21 year olds are not sufficiently mature to take that attitude toward college, the results we see these days are often frustrating but never surprising.

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