A fruitful discussion this past week in the NYT's "Room for the Debate" section. The topic: "Have College Freshmen Changed?" The introduction to the forum asks: "Are social, academic and financial pressures on freshmen becoming more intense? Have freshmen changed? Does the fact that many students are used to 'helicopter' parents monitoring and guiding all of their activities affect the transition to college?"
Participants note that less academic work is expected of current college students than it was a generation or two ago. Students now spend less time on homework. (Hours and hours on Call of Duty.) They also, according to some observers, have more difficulties with failure and tend to lack "perspective." The assessments are bleak, for the most part. Take Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State: "[Freshmen] also always heard they were special, and told to single-mindedly pursue their goals. 'Generation Me' is higher in narcissism and lower in empathy than previous generations." Or, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, former president of George Washington University, "Leaving home and coming of age has always been hard. With the democratization of higher education, with an increasing percentage of American young people enrolled in post-secondary institutions, do we need more vigorous programs to help students adjust to the changes as they mature into adults?"
I suppose every history professor has stories of students who come up to them after a midterm, despondent, asking, "Why did I do so poorly on the test?" The professor asks: Did you spend time going over the study guide? Did you attend the TA's study group? Did you write out a few outlines for the essay questions? To which the student replies: No. And then asks again, "But why did I do so poorly on the test?" (Reminds me of the "Brawndo has electrolytes" scene in Idiocracy.) My favorite excuse a student gave for poor performance--this was back in my University of Florida days--was that she figured she was allergic to something in the classroom. This, she told me at the end of the semester . . . and in upspeak, nonetheless.
I think that making generalizations about a generation is dicy business. I never wore plaid or listened to bad reraw grunge while I was in college in the early 1990s. My parents did not have flashbacks. The music from The Big Chill was not the soundtrack for their life. They lived in Purdy, Missouri, during the Swinging 60s.
Still, the NYT forum deserves a close read. All professors could benefit from thinking about the challenges a new generation might pose to teaching and learning.