On Thursday I will put a summer of research and writing behind me and return to my professorial duties in the classroom. When I do, I will greet a fresh crop of college students, as I have done every year since 1999.
I often get asked if I notice any difference, if students have gotten “better” or “worse” over the years since I first began teaching. The question itself can often be a bit loaded; the person posing it may be expecting me to confirm their suspicions. The truth, however, is a little more complex, which is why I often answer: “Both.” It seems to me that as time goes by, the students entering my classroom, on the whole, are getting better at some things and worse at others.
My home institution, Towson University in suburban Baltimore, is a good place to observe such trends and vacillations among American college students. Originally founded as the Maryland state normal college for training K-12 teachers, it first opened in 1866 with eleven students in a Red Man’s social club in downtown Baltimore. It has since grown into a full fledged university, its ongoing expansion reflected in its name changes over the years: Maryland State Normal School (1866); Towson State Teacher’s College (1935); Towson State College (1963); Towson State University (1976); Towson University (1997).
While TU still produces more teachers than any other institution in the state, the College of Education is now just one among eight colleges at the university, including the College of Liberal Arts where I am based as a tenured member of the History Department. Currently the second largest school in Maryland with a total student population of about 22,000, only the flagship campus at College Park is larger. I sometimes joke to people from outside the state that Towson University is the biggest school no one’s ever heard of.
While I am proud of the work that I and many of my colleagues do, and likewise take pride in the work that many of my students do, an honest assessment would be to say that Towson University in many ways is a middling institution. That is not to degrade the school, but rather to point out that in some respects it is representative of the larger American population, or at least the minority of Americans who wind up attending college.
TU is not a top tier school chock full of super achievers. Nor is it a private school where demographics are so severely skewed by income that the student body is grossly unrepresentative of the American population at large. But then again, Towson is not a community college where demographics trend more towards poverty. The vast majority of Towson students come from middle class families that range from almost poor to almost rich. A fair number will be the first or one of the first in their family to graduate college. Many of them work at least part time. About a third lof them are commuters. And while the clear majority of students are white suburbanites, there is a rising minority enrollment, and a steady population of both rural and urban students. Since Towson is a state school, most of its students come from Maryland, but competitive out-of-state tuition rates make it regionally attractive, and plenty of students are drawn from Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York, as well as a smattering from more distant parts of the country, and there are nearly 1,000 international students.
Anywhere from 200-250 of these students (mostly undergraduates) will filter through my classes in a given academic year. In upper division classes, a majority of them will be History majors. But in the introductory surveys, which I teach 2-3 sections of per year, very few of them are History majors because those courses meet a university general education requirement that all students must fulfill.
In my experience with the thousands of Towson students I’ve taught and advised during my ten years there, I find that they generally spread the full gamut when it comes to issues like talent, preparation, and work habits. I have no graduate Teaching Assistants at my disposal, and so I personally run every discussion in which they partake and grade every piece of material (all of which are written assignments) that they submit. My grades often approximate a bell curve, though not because I grade on one, but because that’s just the way things tend to sort themselves out at a place like Towson.
In other words, Towson University offers a reasonable cross-section of Northeastern American college students. And so when someone asks me about whether students are getting better or worse, I feel reasonably comfortable saying “both.”
One area in which I find students have improved noticeably over the years (some colleagues will no doubt disagree) is in their writing. Their formal grammar is still problematic, their spelling’s no better, and as young adults they’re of course still prone to misue the passive voice and big words they don’t really understand in an effort to sound smart. And lord knows their handwriting is worse than ever, making their essay-filled blue books a nightmare in some respects. However, their ability to cobble together a clear thought and to organize some of those thoughts, I believe, is getting better.
I attribute that to their having grown up with the internet. They simply write a lot more than prior generations of students. And certainly all of them, just like all of us, have had that unpleasant experience of sending an email or text that was meant to be ironic or sarcastic but is taken the wrong way, or for some other reason there is a fundamental miscommunication with you and the reader and difficulties ensue. It can be a painful lesson in the need to write clearly and the importance of knowing your audience, and a lot of them have already learned it by the time they get to my class.
Another way in which they’re better is that they are, for lack of a better word, far more post-modern than earlier generations of students. They did not grow up in Cold War America, with its emphasis on rigid categories or its harsh and sometimes moralistic critiques (or dogmatic defenses) of the fringe. And in addition to a post-Cold War America, they also grew up in a post-Civil Rights America, a place where bigotry, while it still certainly exists, is no longer openly acceptable in the popular culture, while diversity is a nearly universally lauded world view.
In short, they don’t remember the 1980s. Actually, most of them weren’t even born yet. Thursday’s new freshman will have entered this world in 1993. So they don’t even really remember the 1990s. They’ll claim to remember 9-11. They almost have to since it is the seminal event in defining post-Cold War America. But the truth is, all they’ll really have is the foggy memories of an 8-year old.
The result is that today’s students are far more comfortable simply accepting an idea, person, or thing for what it is. They have less of a need to pigeon hole and presume. When confronted with a round peg and a square hole, they are less likely to try and jam the peg in, or to blame it, judge it, and then cast it out. And I think that is to their credit.
Simply put, they’re much more open minded than my generation was at their age. Disco or Rock n Roll? Many of them instinctively recognize that kind of nonsense for the false dichotomy that it really is. Why on earth should one feel compelled to choose? The notion that either genre represents some murky value system that demands our loyalty is ridiculous, and they would have no compunction about liking The Village People and Led Zeppelin.
Personally, I’ll take “Macho Man” over “Stairway to Heaven” any day.
But recent students also have their weaknesses and blind spots. And one of the they ways in which they can frustrate faculty and undermine their own performance and development has to do with LEGOS.
Yes, LEGOS, that classic toy of colorful, plastic, interlocking blocks invented by a Danish carpenter.
The carpenter in question, one Ole Kirk Christiansen (1891-1958), named his invention for the Danish phrase leg godt, meaning “play well.” And indeed, I and millions of other children of the Baby Boom and Generation X eras played well with them, along with their earlier American counterparts: Lincoln Logs (invented by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son) and Tinker Toys (from the same company that brought you the Erector Set).
Legos, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys and the like were all early 20th century versions of classically minimalist children’s toys. Featuring new colors, shapes, and materials made possible by the industrial revolution, they were not complex. They were just a just slightly more sophisticated version of simplicity.
After all, what is a box of LEGOS? Well, really it’s whatever you want it to be, or perhaps more accurately, whatever you can make of it. It’s just a bunch of blocks, waiting for you to create something. Anything. Or nothing at all. It’s up to you.
But not anymore. Now LEGOS come with specific plans and goals. LEGOS have transformed into pre-determined set pieces. Some of them are crass cross-promotional tie-ins with other child-oriented, entertainment business brands such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and Sponge Bob Square Pants. Others are more generic in their design. But make no mistake. The family-owned LEGO Group of Billund, Denmark is no longer offering the world a simple, inexpensive toy with which children might challenge themselves by finding creative ways to “play well.” Instead it is pushing pricier set-pieces in which children are given clear directions.
Here are your instructions. Do it this way. Here is your goal. Achieve what has been carefully laid out for you. Your success or failure will be defined by these very clear and rigid parameters.
And this prescribed version of LEGOS, metaphorically speaking, has been very detrimental to the newer generation of college students. Growing up in a highly structured world of play-dates, organized activities, and adult-monitored “fun,” on the whole they thrive in an environment that presents them with detailed directions and clearly stated, narrowly defined goals.
What they tend to lack is creativity and initiative.
In college this often translates into a generation of students who want the answers but are less interested in asking questions. But it’s not just about grades. Of course most students have always wanted to do well, the system has often emphasized correct answers, and so many students have always placed a premium on them. Rather, the issue is that many students do not trust the educational process unless it is clearly delineated and points directly to the A+ at the end of the rainbow.
If the process is more open, then they are often confused and worried. If they are challenged to forge their own path, to find their own answers, or god forbid to ask questions that have no clear answers, then they are apt to panic or stare at you blankly. That kind of process either scares or confuses them.
In the end, it seems to me, the reason they do not trust an abstract process of education is because they do not trust themselves. They have not been given ample opportunity to find things on their own. They haven’t spent enough time discovering, wondering, and inventing. Instead, too often they have been given detailed blueprints about what their LEGO world should look like.
As a Historian, this is very troubling. History is a field that straddles the Social Sciences and the Humanities. Abstraction is a big part of what we do. And in a discipline with ever-expanding borders, and source material (or “data”) that is at once horribly inadequate yet far too voluminous to use comprehensively, initiative and self-direction are at a premium.
If you’re going to write a 25 page research paper, it really would be for the best if you picked your own topic, found and selected your own sources, constructed your own narrative, and drew your own conclusions. Yes, of course the professor is here to help, and rightly so. But the professor’s job in that situation is not to pick a topic and sources for you, but rather to guide you in a more subtle way.
We can talk about why you have more short blocks than long ones, what the blue blocks might mean as opposed to the red ones, and interesting places where you might find some other blocks that may prove helpful. But in the end, I can’t tell you what to build. Hell, I can’t even give you detailed directions on how to build it, only general ones. You have to do that for yourself.
Self-Determination is an odd little concept, and whatever it is, certainly some people have more of it than others. But that’s one of the reasons why parents send their kids to college. Lest we forget, two-thirds of Americans do not have a college degree. Higher education is still a sign of privilege and opportunity to some degree, pun intended. It’s the chance to take the blocks of your life and build something that approximates your dreams, without the daunting challenges and fantastic odds of a Horatio Alger story or a Lotto ticket.
Come Thursday, I will begin the 15 week-long process, conducted twice yearly, in which I try to drive that home to my students. Along the way I will show them some things that other people have built. And then I will pour a bunch of strange new blocks onto the floor, in the form of lectures and assigned readings, and ask them to build something relevant through discussions, exams, and papers.
The opportunity is theirs to pursue as they see fit.