Are today’s students becoming too fragile for higher education? A former student of mine somehow managed to get up the grit and gumption to share this Psychology Today story. on that topic. After I awarded the student her mandatory trophy and coupon for 20 hours of trauma recovery therapy, I found Gray’s article to be very useful, in that it points out the many challenges and problems involved in approaching this issue.
Gray’s thesis is simple. Kids, er, students these days have been brought up to be too fragile for higher education, much less adult life. He offers several colorful anecdotes, like these:
[A] student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a “bitch” and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment. The latter two also called the police, who kindly arrived and set a mousetrap for them.
Gray quotes a counselor from his institution (remember, these count as administrators), who warned the community thusly:
“[T]here has also been a decrease in the ability of many young people to manage the everyday bumps in the road of life. Whether we want it or not, these students are bringing their struggles to their teachers and others on campus who deal with students on a day-to-day basis. The lack of resilience is interfering with the academic mission of the University and is thwarting the emotional and personal development of students.”
To his enormous credit, Gray identifies one source of this problem as… a lack of fun in the lives of youngsters: “the dramatic decline, over the past few decades, in children’s opportunities to play, explore, and pursue their own interests away from adults.” I have lots of sympathy for this on a variety of levels: as a father, a teacher, a citizen, a writer, an observer.
(For more on fun and play, please see the great guru Bernie Dekoven)
I’m also delighted to learn that Gray works on unschooling. This gratifies my home-schooling, independent, and skeptical-of-authority heart.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Let me count the ways.
To begin with, Gray conflates all students (I assume he means undergraduates) with traditional-age learners. This is a problem, since “Young people,18 years and older” are actually a minority within American higher education. If Gray wants to focus on that generation, he needs to identify them explicitly. Which makes for a narrower article.
Does Gray see these problems as afflicting other generations? As a GenXer I cringe with anticipatory humiliation, but don’t see signs of that in this piece.
And are these all 18-year-olds, or just those with enough class privilege to enable helicopter parenting and therapy? As my wife asked on Twitter,
Ceredwyn Alexander @Paganaidd, “I’d love to know more about the economic circumstances of these ‘hot house children'”
At a different level, the article shows a strange lack of historical awareness. Or perhaps it’s not that strange, given psychology’s professional tendency to lose sight of social context for the personal and subjective. I’m referring to the enormous stresses those traditional-age students now face, which Gray certainly didn’t when he went to school in the 1960s: skyrocketing student loan debt; a half-decade of terrible employment options following the 2007-2008 financial crash. Should we be surprised that students experiencing these forces show tremors?
Returning to the population theme, I’m not sure Gray is aware that an increasing proportion of undergraduates now objectively require assistance. Think of the numbers of first-generation students, who often need help navigating a landscape for which their family background might not have prepared them. Think, too, of the number of students from poor socio-economic situations. We know from Robert Putnam’s recent work (and our discussion of it) that the lower 20-40% of graduating high school seniors may suffer from academic unpreparation.
On top of this, there are growing numbers of veterans, who may need counseling and academic support. Recall that those veterans have been fighting in what the Pentagon calls the Grand War on Terror, and that today’s teenagers have grown up in the global war environment post-9-11. Indeed, the White House has been using the term Homeland Generation to describe them. Surely this is another stressor.
Let’s add the extensive and high-stakes testing environment within which these students have learned (hat tip to cryoshon on HackerNews). No Child Left Behind is fifteen years (!) old. Gray’s target population has known nothing else. Should we be surprised to see their having some anxieties?
We can also bring to bear another aspect of historical change, namely the end of tenure for a clear majority of faculty. Why does this matter? Because Gray nearly touches on it:
Faculty at the meetings noted that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when in comes to grading. Some said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices.
Faculty who are at-will hires, lacking tenure-track support, lacking a large amount of academic freedom, certainly do feel scared to give bad grades. Because they can lead to bad student evaluations, and no section(s) next semester. Need I explain the problems here, when some chunk of those adjuncts are so ill-compensated that they need federal assistance to live?
In short, if we are discussing the traditional-age population that constitutes a minority within higher education, there may be some excellent historical reasons for them to suffer stress and anxiety in addition to their being deprived of enough opportunities for play.
I fear that we risk running into a form of ageism in this kind of conversation. Not in the usual sense of the term (cf this excellent site), which means people discriminating against seniors, but in the sense of kid-bashing. If American society is having a hard time thinking generously and realistically about our elders, I suspect we’re starting to experience a similar problem about youngsters.
In this kind of discussion we also run afoul of bad parameters, either too large (all students, when we mean one segment therefrom) or too small (focusing on psychology to the neglect of history).
In the case of professor Gray, I feel ambivalent about this critique. As noted earlier, although he’s new to me, his work in general sounds excellent, and I hope to read this book of his. But it’s important to realize that we live in a different era, post-2007.
(photo by the brilliant Alan Levine; many thanks to Jaime Townsend for the link; thanks to Ed Webb for eagle-eyed review)