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credit: Doane University

Consider, gentle readers, these first two paragraphs:

In 20 years of teaching at Doane University, Kate Marley has never seen anything like it. Twenty to 30 percent of her students do not show up for class or complete any of the assignments. The moment she begins to speak, she says, their brains seem to shut off. If she asks questions on what she’s been talking about, they don’t have any idea. On tests they struggle to recall basic information.

‘Stunning’ is the word she uses to describe the level of disengagement she and her colleagues have witnessed across the Nebraska campus. ‘I don’t seem to be capable of motivating them to read textbooks or complete assignments,’ she says of that portion of her students. ‘They are kind kids. They are really nice to know and talk with. I enjoy them as people.’ But, she says, ‘I can’t figure out how to help them learn.’ . . .

Are you horrified?  Or does this sound familiar, merely the bland reality of the current generation?  The Chronicle of Higher Education solicited additional responses from teachers:

While a self-selected group, the respondents, several of whom agreed to be interviewed, represent a range of institutions: community colleges, large public universities, small private colleges, and some highly selective institutions. They described common challenges: Far fewer students show up to class. Those who do avoid speaking when possible. Many skip the readings or the homework. They have trouble remembering what they learned and struggle on tests. . . .

Those who are keeping up on contemporary education issues, perhaps in part via this scruffy little blog, find this all too predictable, too common.

 ‘My students are struggling to focus within and outside of class,’ wrote one history professor at a public university in Georgia, who, like many respondents, asked to remain anonymous in order to speak frankly. ‘They feel overwhelmed and pressed for time. They cannot separate the existential dread of Covid and now Ukraine from their daily ability to live.’

Are you, like me, wondering who has allowed them to get away with such irrational fears and distractions?  Who has conditioned them to think all that truly matters is their internal cognitive dissonance with daily reality?  Their parents?  Their friends?  Their teachers?  Did no one ever tell them to cowboy up and demand they recognize reality and meet adult expectations?

Though professors reported seeing burnout at all levels, from recent high-school graduates to adult learners, newer students seem to have struggled the most.

Freshmen and sophomores, wrote Ashley Shannon, chair of the English department at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan, are ‘by and large tragically underprepared to meet the challenges of university life — both academically and in terms of ‘adulting,’ such as understanding the consequences of missing a lot of class. ‘It’s not all their fault, by a long shot! I feel for them. But it’s a problem, and it’s going to have a significant ripple effect.’ . . .

This, gentle readers, is a class participation article.  Allow me to do what teachers do: raise issues, suggest means of analysis and spark discussion.

*Kate Marley is a caring, competent college teacher, but it’s not her job to “teach” as elementary teachers teach.  It’s her job to present material on a college level and expect college level scholarship of those in her classes.  That’s the job of any college teacher.

*Colleges who accept anyone with a pulse and solvent bank account—or unlimited federally backed student loans—have no grounds to complain about a lack of interest or academic ability.

*To the degree their K-12 schooling failed to require competent academic performance, provided professional teaching, and focused on topics other than the professional content of each discipline, perhaps it’s not all the student’s fault.

*The current generation, and/or those currently attending college of any age, are simply lazy.  They’ve been spoon fed, never required to accept adult responsibility, never had to pay their way, survive on their own, or accept responsibility for the lives of others.

*The D/S/C plot is working.  They’re scared to death of a seasonal virus to which they’re essentially immune.  They’re conditioned to obey without question people who lie to them and do not have their best interests at heart.  On some level they know that, but lack the will and courage to embrace liberty.

*They’re a generation brought up on almost exclusively video stimulation.  Even watching a standard length movie taxes their ability to concentrate unless it’s filled with bloody violence, nudity and ever more vibrant computer graphics.  They can barely read, and understand very little of what they do read, which is almost nothing.

*Knowing virtually nothing of literature, history, science, a common, American culture, they have virtually no common frames of reference, nor do they understand that value of having such background, basic knowledge.

*The damned pandemic is soooo over.  Suck it up and force politicians to live it and get on with your life.  You were never in control of life and death, no one is, and whining about a seasonal virus is a ticket to living in your parent’s basement for the rest of your life, so cowboy up you weaklings.

*First day of class college teacher announcement: “I am your (fill in the discipline here) teacher for this semester.  You have the class syllabus and requirements in front of you.  This is college.  You are paying for it.  I am not your psychologist and I am absolutely not your homey.  This is not a safe space, and I don’t give a damn about anything but the discipline I am paid to teach.  There will be no political posturing in this class, nor will some protest here or elsewhere matter.  I will be here, on time, completely prepared, every class period.  You will meet my expectations or your will fail, lose the money you paid for these credits, and have to take the class again.  There are no excuses for failing to do the reading, refusing to participate in discussions, not showing up, failing to hand in assignments or do them at all.  As Yoda said: ‘there is no try; do or do not.’  I will do my job providing the best educational opportunity my abilities and experience can manage.  The rest is up to you.”

Final Thoughts:  One of the disturbing things I learned in a quarter century in the classroom is many Americans are moving steadily toward a post-literate society.  They are not only no longer readers, what little reading they do avails them little understanding, and less thoughtfulness.  Reading is increasingly no longer a valued pastime, a means of self-improvement, but drudgery, too time-consuming and confusing for a society raised on glowing screens from watch to wall size.

As regular readers know, I have little time for college teachers complaining about the quality of students when their institutions accept people manifestly unqualified to be in college. Virtually every college has a remedial high school on campus, and people who have no business in college must attend that remedial high school, paying full tuition and receiving no credit in the hope their skills might improve just enough so they aren’t hopelessly lost in actual college level classes.  Being usually lost or uncaring is fine.

I’m not being cruel.  Cruelty occurs when a college accepts someone they know cannot do the work, and will drop out without a degree, deeply in debt with no skills to discharge it.

I’ve no doubt we are moving toward reality as it once was: college is a place for only about the top 10-15% of the public in intellectual capacity.  As I’ve so often written, I would not deny anyone the opportunity to attend college.  I’ve known many people who, through dogged determination, actually earned a degree, and are better and more capable people for the effort, but they are by no means a majority, far from it.

Despite the fantasies of the self-imagined elite, people who live in “ought to be” rather than reality, not everyone needs to know how to code.  We will always need the skilled trades, work where people can make a very good living doing valuable and necessary work, where they can find meaning.

Many of the people about who Marley worries will graduate college with a degree worth essentially nothing, a reality America is coming to universally accept.  An Ivy League degree once meant something.  Now it mostly means the graduate is a doctrinaire Marxist with little understanding of human nature and reality.  Mark Twain said:

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.

Those who cannot read about the realities of human nature, who can’t understand them and apply them to contemporary life, are all but worthless.  They’re doomed to be parasites, takers not makers, and in their ineptitude, they doom us all.  That which cannot go on forever will not go on forever.  We will see a readjustment toward reality, in this, and much else, or the poor reading abilities and laziness of college students will be the least of our concerns.