MIGHT AS WELL

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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27 Responses to “MIGHT AS WELL”

  1. Middle Seaman Says:

    As describe above, dark clouds cover the employment chances of many graduating students. Students in engineering get hired and their compensation seems fine in most cases.

    Why not offer a degree in say poli sci that also calls for a marketable statistical ability? Why not offer students in history and English enough computer and network skills demanded by the market? Degrees in hotel management already exist but aren't offered widely. The need to come up with more marketable degrees haunts students, but evades altogether most of our universities. My school still has the same archaic liberal arts college it had 60 years ago with only minute changes. We should have been way ahead by now.

  2. buckyblue Says:

    And even if they do land that plum job, they have now sold their soul to their corporate overlords. Who will give them one week of vacation for the next ten years, then bump it up to two. If they work for a smaller company, they may not even get that. They can get fired at any time for any reason, and if they are fired without cause they can hope for compensation in the courts in about, oooohhhhh, seven years. By then their home's gone, wife/hubby has left them. Tell me again what's so great about America and why we shouldn't party for four/five/six years of college and more if we want grad school?

  3. wetcasements Says:

    Why college? I'm hardly a technological utopian, but what's the fucking point? It used to be you could get a good four-year degree paying a reasonably low state tuition but now it's pretty damn expensive, even at State U.

    So why bother? What you need is a reading list and an internet connection. Instead of tuition, save yourself tens of thousands of dollars and travel around the world once or thrice. Done and done.

    And yes, I did benefit from a traditional four-year liberal arts school where I happened to bust my ass (and no, I'm not _that_ old). But today it just seems like such a waste. These professor guys are known to make videos these days and post them on the internet for free.

    So yeah, the kids are getting lazier but this just seems further impetus to blow most of the system up. Research institutions will be fine in terms of getting lucrative grants, humanities departments will have to bite the bullet and realize that you don't "need" a prof to guide you through the classics. It certainly helps, but there's nothing wrong with being an autodidact. And let's face it — lots of what comes out of humanities programs these days is complete sophistic bullshit (speaking as someone with a BA and MA in English who once had a dream of being paid to create such sophistic bullshit).

    "Why not offer students in history and English enough computer and network skills demanded by the market?"

    My graduate program offered a highly successful American studies MA that basically taught research and web skills together (no papers, your final project was web-based). So there are opportunities like this, and fwiw there are no shortage of English majors who end up in web design/programming/IT etc. Done properly, analyzing books can really amplify your critical thinking abilities.

    So yeah, I'm all over the place on this one. Ten years ago I'd tell people never take on debt for a graduate degree, only go if you got a full-ride. Now I'd simply apply that logic to a BA as well.

  4. c u n d gulag Says:

    Let 'em have fun.

    Life sucks.
    Work sucks.
    Shit starts hurting more and more.
    And then you die.

    Make hay while the sun shines, says I.

  5. Major Kong Says:

    Now, now. With a lot of hard work and more than a little luck they might just work their way up to middle management at the XYZ corporation – just before getting downsized at age 50 with no pension and no hope of future employment beyond stocking shelves at a big-box store somewhere.

  6. TomW Says:

    Sympathetic to most of your points. But I do want to stick up for study abroad, it can be a fantastic educational experience for those who do it right – spending a solid year in a program that forces them to interact with a foreign culture.

    Unfortunately, the administrators decided a while back that study abroad was a good thing and started setting goals for greater participation. This has lead to lots of short-term island programs, where the students jet over and spend 10 days or maybe a month doing things with other students from their home institutions. These short-term programs can have some value if done right, but many of them are indeed "dicking around abroad". But the student who spends 10 days riding around in an air conditioned bus, sleeping in nice hotels while looking at slums and learning about poverty "counts" in the statistics just as much as the one who spends a year mastering a foreign language while immersed in another culture and its perspectives.

  7. Conni Says:

    Yeah, I have to stick up for study abroad, too. The year I spent studying in Germany as an undergrad was awesome. My German approached native ability by the end, and I learned about chemistry, German dialects, fin de siecle German literature, and post-WW2 German foreign policy. I also learned that I can be self-sufficient in a foreign land.

    Close to a fifth of my undergrad class studied abroad (I went to a small private school; I think there were like 50 of us abroad that year). Among the non-academic things we learned was the knowledge that other countries do things differently than the US and *that's OK.* Sometimes they do things better!

    I don't know what other universities' or colleges' programs are like, though.

  8. ladiesbane Says:

    Nope, sorry. I'm glad you're not resentful of the children's fun-having, but…two points:

    First: "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." I matriculated in 1986 at what was sold to me as the "Ivy League of the West" and guys were still chugging beers at 8 am, girls were still cutting class to go shopping, folks were still taking drugs and dropping trou all over. Arguably, college has been a prolonged mating dance since Betty Co-Ed arrived after World War I.

    Second: "When we complain about their laziness and tell them to work harder, we assume that working harder will lead to better outcomes." It will, every time. I think we might agree on this, since you say those are good things in and of themselves — but you don't say why. If you were thinking that there is stuff worth knowing and pondering, absolutely. But beyond that, it is incredibly important to have people (the younger the better) learn to apply themselves.

    Not only is it just about the most important ability to have (and not everyone has it), but accomplishing things, from finishing a model airplane to a four year degree, builds confidence and self-respect. When hard times come, one of the most reliable coping mechanisms anyone has is the list of All Accomplishments Great and Small that sits in the back of the memory: I did THAT, so I can do this too. It sounds paltry, but it works like nothing else. People build themselves brick by brick. Or else they don't.

  9. bb in GA Says:

    Homo Sapiens – the essence of our life here. The Latin says we are the 'One who knows.'

    How do we know?

    By constantly learning something new everyday. We who are involved in the education business need to feed that…

    "He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. He will bring justice to all who have been wronged." Isaiah 42:3

    There's a good line (from a Messianic discourse) that promotes encouragement and social justice – a verse Lefties can love :-)

    //bb

  10. cat Says:

    "…the benefits of holding a Bachelor's have plummeted…"

    I really don't believe this based on all the lifetime earning and unemployment by education data.

    Certain degrees with certain costs may not be as benificial as others or as they used to be, but as a whole the benefits are still there and its in your best interests to take on the debt associated with college.

  11. RosiesDad Says:

    Shorter Ed: "Undergrads: Have some fun while you can then prepare to kill yourselves."

  12. HoosierPoli Says:

    I know my share of college-age guys and gals that aren't in school (or are in community college). They're exactly the same. Young adults will be young adults, whether they spend their productive time going to class or humping it in retail 8 hours a day.

    Arguably the biggest benefits from college are the socialization and world-broadening effects of it, anyway. If it were about preparing you for a job we'd call it vocational school. It's about allowing you to grow as a person, expand your understanding of what your future could be. Introduction to International Relations is simply not relevant to 98 percent of the people in the seats. Frankly I'm shocked I get paid to teach at all.

  13. DiTurno Says:

    I teach at a second tier state university and while I complain about my students, it's absolutely not a four year party for most of them. I'd guess that 80% of my students have a job and probably 30% are working full time. Probably 10% have kids.

    I'm sure it's different at private schools and some research I universities.

  14. Pat_AlexVA Says:

    What ladiesbane said x 100.
    Graduate '93. Part of the right of passage is – with all the distractions surrounding and the parents gone, do you manage to get it together or not?

  15. One Dissillusioned Guy Says:

    "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."

    I used to think that too, till I got a job as "professor of practise" (non-tenure track, of course) at a "top American university."

    Absolutely nothing in my background (I did my two undergraduate degrees in Canada, where there is essenially no such thing as a private "for profit" university) had prepared me for the snake pit that is American academia. I had assumed that I would be dealing with academic professionals (I arrived originally as a grrad student) instead of the gang of narcissitic-personality-disorder-infected overgrown adolescents I encountered. I also assumed that if I built programs and increased enrollment (I basically created an entire jazz-performance studies program for them from scratch, over six years) that this would make me an asset to the institution. Instead I got a kick in the ass and ashove out the door.

    These were people who ostensibly were paid to teach and do research but instead spent 90% of their time empire building, engaging in pointless slap fights with other tenured faculty, rewarding their friends and scheming to punish their "enemies." My relationship with my thesis "supervising" (a 72 year old piece of tenured deadwood who's actually published less than I have) deteriorated to the point where his default mode of communication with me by phone was screaming obscenies and hanging up. In person it was screaming obscenities and physically pushing me out of his office. The chair of the department accidentially CCd me on an e-mail that featured him sneering and mocking me to my committee. I could go on, but what's the point? If I'd heard even half of this shit from someone else ten years ago, I would have thought they were exaggerating.

    "Education for it's own sake" only makes sense in America if you're independently wealthy. If you want education, get a library card. Most of the American university system if about money…Pell Grants, student loans, outrageous tuitions, resulting in students emarking on a lifetime of indentured servitude to the banking system. Most schools don't give a crap about graduating students, just enrolling them. It's all about getting their piece of the hundreds of billions up for grabs. At the graduate level it's about cheap labor. Adjuncts, "professors of practice" TAs, and untenured "visiting professors" do most of the teaching. When they burn out, kick em out the door. There's plenty more suckers waiting in line.

    I was a full time professional musician before I decided to "better myself" with higher education at age 37. I'm back at that now, having wasted 20 years in academia. I deal with some pretty skeevy people in the music business, but they all have more moral center than a lot of the tenured psychopaths and drones I had to deal with at that university.

    The ideal "solution" at this point seems to me to be to burn the place down, plow the wreckage under, sprinkle the ground with salt, and start fresh.

  16. One Dissillusioned Guy Says:

    @DiTurno,

    "I teach at a second tier state university and while I complain about my students, it's absolutely not a four year party for most of them. I'd guess that 80% of my students have a job and probably 30% are working full time. Probably 10% have kids."

    One of the things that occurred to me after losing my university teaching gig was that a guy like me would be most attractive to schools like community colleges and state universities, places more concerned with actual teaching that "research" (read:"empire building and pointless slap fights"). Unfortunately, that's not looking like a viable career path in this country right now. The republican governor of my state just cut public education funds by 30%, with more cuts to come. He is bbeefing up the prison system though, so I guess he's no dummy.

  17. Dick Nixon Says:

    A degree today is a ticket to the employment amusement park. It doesn't guarantee you a ride; it does allow you admission. There are a quadrillion personnel offices that add "degree required" to every decent job posting (mostly entirely unnecessary) that add to to educational fervor.

    I have a similar educational profile to Ed. I have never had reason to use the subject skill set in my 35 year career. But the degree(s) opened the door–without them I would be driving a truck. And while there have been many days that truck driving seemed preferable to white collar commerce, I realize that my earnings would have been much less.

    Another thing can be said for a liberal arts major. The critical writing skills and ordination of ideas taught in this discipline were crucial to my development. I was consistently able to out write and out communicate my B-school colleagues. This has led to promotions etc. that were entirely won on paper. I remember many years ago, in a 100-level arts course, an angry B-schooler asking the professor "how is this junk going to help my career?"

    Looking backward,I seem to have figured out the answer.

  18. Alan Says:

    It's good that you don't begrudge your adolescent students their adolescence. If you think that immature behavior by college students is a new thing, try reading anything from "This Side of Paradise" to "The Rules of Attraction." (And that's just the 20th Century.)

    But there's no point getting all nihilistic about it. Yes, employment prospects are tough for history majors. They always have been, and in a down economy they're even worse.

    And since when are employability or the acquisition of marketable skills the hallmark of a good education? Many of the finest colleges in the world expressly **prohibit** such classes and majors. There's a reason that Harvard, Williams, Swarthmore, Pomona, etc. don't offer undergraduate degrees in Business Administration or Engineering.

    Despite the fact that most students' focus is more on what's in their their undies than what's in their backpacks, those who graduate will have gained at least a modicum of education. Hopefully they'll have picked up some self-awareness and some critical thinking skills along the way. And those who really apply themselves can have a life-changing intellectual experience.

  19. Major Kong Says:

    Cutting public education funding is like eating your seed corn.

  20. Spiffy McBang Says:

    I really doubt, as many others here apparently do, that students of "normal" college age are thinking so deeply about what they face, even subconsciously. When I took my first whack at college in 1995, I wound up on academic probation because I didn't give a shit. I went back at age 29, did my four years, and graduated with a 3.9 GPA.

    The two things that had changed were a) I had learned certain things from the real world, e.g. how to treat professors like regular people and not either Mystical Learning Gurus or The Man, that gave me a leg up on even the most devoted twenty-year-old, and b) I wanted to be there. I desperately wanted to be there. Partying overmuch and giving negative fucks are not signs of youth, per se; they're signs of people who aren't particularly invested in what they're doing. You see it more in younger students because they're the ones most likely to be in college for no other reason it's what they're supposed to do.

    This is why, although I'm certainly on board with greater public investment in state colleges and vocational training, I'm not in favor of a setup like some European countries where it's completely free. Wanting students to pay something for their higher education is not a shot at the "welfare state" or suggesting the free market needs to be at work, it's to keep people invested in what they're doing. To me the right balance is where someone has to choose between working to support themselves and using student loans to focus on studies, not a situation where you end up (in my case) working four nights a week and still almost $20k in the hole after four years going to a state college.

  21. Spiffy McBang Says:

    P.S. That "balance" I refer to also requires more opportunities for students to have decent paying jobs. So it's not just based on educational policy.

  22. Leading Edge Boomer Says:

    Spiffy, Don't discount considerable research showing that humans do not begin to think like adults until they are 25-27 years old. This explains many phenomena.

  23. Alex SL Says:

    Spiffy McBang,

    The problem with this view of the student as a consumer who has to be "invested" is that this will lead to poor people being excluded from education. If you reply that there could be special programs to make it free for them, well, that is kind of providing the precedent for financial investment not being so necessary after all, isn't it?

  24. Bosh Says:

    Well there's a big difference between having a degree and not having a degree in the job market but there just isn't much of a difference between half-assing your way through college and working really hard when it comes to getting jobs. What it says on my diploma has helped me feed my family to a massive extent but it really wouldn't have made any difference if I graduated at the top or the bottom of my class instead of almost exactly in the middle of it. As far as learning stuff, that's a whole different question. At least in college I didn't feel like I could've learned more by reading one book over a weekend and the classes I didn't learn much from were pretty evenly split between it being my fault and the prof's fault…

  25. Arslan Says:

    I would say that since most Americans won't have the opportunity to vacation abroad it makes sense to take advantage of various study abroad programs.

    I should also point out that there are ways to make plenty of money without a college degree. I've never spent a day in college and I live abroad, travel all over the world, and I make about $1000 for working 30 hours a week. Good luck with that computer science degree!