My younger son convinced me to take him last Sunday to yet another viewing of Star Wars: Episode 3 --- two hours plus of light saber fights. I’m not seeing the attraction anymore. On the way home from the movie I asked him and his older brother, who also came along, whether they missed school and were ready to go back. (The younger one just finished 5th grade, the older one finished 7th grade.) Both said, “absolutely not.” This was not a scientifically designed survey, to be sure, but it is an indicator. Apparently they prefer having the personal freedom to loll around at home to the more structured demands that school makes on them.
This is not particularly surprising and I suspect that if many parents asked their kids of similar ages the same question this time of year, they would get similar responses. And they would get those responses even from kids who are earning good grades at school.
I mention this because what seems like a crisis in student engagement, and certainly that was depicted in Declining by Degrees, both in interviews with the students themselves and with expert commentators, has it roots in rather ordinary behavior as younger people get to decide for themselves how they allocate their time. And for that reason I think it will be particularly hard to sort out whether this has been happening right along and to the same extent as now, from the time I started college in 1972 (and earlier), or if things have really deteriorated substantially.
I don’t want to belabor this point, but I do recall a weekend visit to Stony Brook, perhaps when I was a junior. A lot of my high school classmates went there. It seemed like they were having one big party. Yet it was the weekend and this is only a small memory fragment. My only point is that many of the folks who are faculty at large public universities (and the disengagement crisis was depicted in the documentary as happening at U Arizona although that readily could have been U Illinois) may not have been students at large public universities. In thinking about the student engagement issues from the faculty perspective it is natural to contrast with your own experience as a student (I do that quite a bit in this blog) and yet it may be an apples and oranges comparison.
With that caveat on measurement, I now want to assume for the rest of this post that things have indeed deteriorated. There is less seriousness among today’s students. Many of them are only going through the motions as college students and yet they expect to get by with decent grades and reap the full benefits of the degree they will have “earned.” The question I want to get at is why. Why is the decline happening? What are the root causes?
Let me begin with this classification. Education can serve one of two functions. Either it is a passport (the degree allows one to seek out better jobs) or it provides personal growth. These need not be mutually exclusive but they should be mutually exhaustive. In other word, education either provides deferred gratification – higher earnings and more future job satisfaction – or immediate gratification – joy in the learning itself. Alienation is a natural byproduct when there is only future gratification. A simple theory of the decline in seriousness only has to note that the relative importance of future gratification has increased. Clearly that has happened. Students going to college are incurring more debt because tuition is higher. And the difference in lifetime wage profile attributable to the college degree is on the rise. In other words, the passport effect is stronger than ever and that makes students all the more mercenary.
But alienation can manifest in different ways. When I was an undergrad (and I believe this is still true today) there was a caricature of pre-meds as intense grade grubbers but without any intellectual curiosity whatsoever. In classes that were mixed pre-med and others (I was one of those others in an Organic Chemistry class) the pre-meds spoiled it for the rest of us, but c’est la vie. This pre-med form of alienation is a possible reaction to the deferred gratification view of education. However, it is not the form of alienation that is the focus of Declining By Degrees. Pre-med students do work outside of class. They actually work quite hard. Their motives may not be pure, but they are not shirkers.
Indeed, in earlier grades the pre-med model – work hard to get a high GPA – is held up as model to emulate. That’s true for kids the age of mine. It’s much rarer to hear parents talk about kids achieving some type of intellectual satisfaction in school, though I must say that my wife and I have talked that way somewhat about our own kids.
The shirking (no effort outside the classroom and not much in it) and cheating (plagiarism, gaming with online grading, etc.) are a different type of alienation. Certainly all the large classes in the first year experience are a factor in explaining this. But a different explanation offered by Russel Durst in Collision Course is worth considering in some depth because the alienation is likely to happen even in small classes. Durst posits that students are intensely pragmatic, in the main, and are looking for education where they can see the value immediately. Education of this sort will encourage effort, not shirking. Instructors, on the other hand, are equally intense about their theoretical orientation and feel it is their main goal for students to see the world through a theoretical lens.
In this view, students don’t start out as shirkers. They learn to do this as a by-product of learning that they will not be getting a very pragmatic education. They don’t see the point of the theory and so why not shirk? There doesn’t seem to be much consequence either way. On this view, the solution to the problem may very well be in reconsidering what we teach our students. Is there a compromise approach where pragmatism and theory meet? Is there something we can say about such a compromise that generalizes across disciplines? And is there something we can say about who might teach in this compromise manner?