The problem with the problem with students today

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.

Resilience, photo by Alan Levine

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'"

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)

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14 Responses to The problem with the problem with students today

  1. John Sener says:

    Nice article, Bryan — however, I am underwhelmed by the evidence used in the Gray article, to put it mildly. The bitch and mouse anecdotes could’ve happened in just about any era and probably did — the only difference being that students turned to counselors, perhaps solely because such services are available now and weren’t then. Most of the other evidence in the article seems to be derived from elite and prestigious institutions (I can’t access the Chronicle source article, so I don’t know how broadly it reached).

    There is something going on here, but there are also plenty of reasons for it. You have described some of them; here are some others:
    – It’s much, much harder to live poor, and thus independently, in today’s society.
    – College has become almost the only path to a middle class life, raising the stakes and the pressure.
    – An abundance of choices and options, particularly for students at more competitive institutions, increases the stress rather than decreasing it (The Paradox of Choice dynamic).
    – The increased focus on education as employment preparation diminishes students’ capacity to conduct their educational careers in a learning-oriented rather than utilitarian fashion — so no wonder the students don’t seem like they’re having any fun; it’s work to them, after all.

    Some people in academia apparently remain blind to these changes and ever resistant to change of their own. I found the quote by the counselor to be offensive and outrageous (how dare those unresilient students interfere with the academic mission of the University!).

    • Excellent points, John. The world *has* changed. So, too, has education, to the surprise or blindness of many commentators. (Check out Andrew Delbanco’s _College_ for an example)

      Can you say more about the abundance of choice facing students at elite institutions? I think you’re referring to a broad curriculum, but am not sure.

      • John Sener says:

        “Abundance of choice facing students at elite institutions” refers to several things. Broad curriculum could be one, but I didn’t have that one in mind. Here’s what I was thinking about:

        – Having lots of choices makes it harder to choose, not easier as is commonly believed. The Paradox of Choice dynamic is: lots of choices + little basis for selecting one choice over another => paralysis and making no choice at all, or at least finding decision making extremely difficult. I suspect some adults in academia perceive this as lack of resilience.
        – The affluent students who populate elite schools have many more choices because they have had many more experiences which have exposed them to more of life’s possibilities. They’ve had a chance to discover and develop more of their latent talents, which paradoxically again makes it harder to choose.
        – An example: a colleague of mine who’s my age chose to be an engineer (unusual for women in that era) because a high school teacher encouraged her to do so. It would have never occurred to her otherwise. She went to a local university because it was good and nearby. In other words, that was pretty much the only path available to her. Contrast that with her children who had many more choices available to them as the result of their parents’ greater affluence and awareness of the available choices.
        – Or consider how the college application process works today — I applied to three colleges; my son applied to 11. I couldn’t even tell you where a place like Tufts University or Claremont-McKenna College was when I was in high school; my son could tell you its USNWR ranking and SAT score distribution using an app on his phone.
        As I can tell you from firsthand experience, all of this information and abundance of choices did not make the selection process easier; instead, it made it much more difficult and complicated. Likewise, I’m having the same conversations with my son right now about career choices. Perceptions and a mix of too much and too little information enter into this as well, but it’s a lot harder to show ‘grit’ or resilience when there are so many choices and no clear basis for choosing.

        • Ceredwyn Alexander says:

          The overabundance of choice thing is HUGE. Daughter had a specific degree program in mind (Emergency Management) which is only taught at a comparatively few schools. Much easier for her to make choices given her other parameters.

          Son is interested in Engineering. He is somewhat overwhelmed by the number of programs out there. Heck, I’m overwhelmed.

  2. Ceredwyn says:

    I agree with your points.

    I think it also bears mentioning that this “fragility” can also come from a feeling of lack of agency on the part of these *adult* students. In short, the colleges often reinforce the belief that their students are actually children, regardless of their actual age.

    Recently, Bryan and my 20 year old daughter was having some issues getting health records from her doctor to her University. The University Health Services people told her, “Just have your mom call your doctor and have her get it.” rather than explain what form she actually needed.

    Ummm…Apparently they have not heard of HIPAA. Our daughter has not signed a consent to share medical information with us, nor should she have to, but the school assumed I was still handling her affairs.

    I can also remember when Bryan was in grad school. We were married with a baby (like many, many other grad students) and the University administration often referred to grad students as “kids”. As in “Well, the University was able to settle the contract dispute with the graduate student instructors. We think the kids have more than they really need in terms of benefits.” The implication being *of course* all the students were still receiving support from their parents. And as “kids” we should really be on our parents insurance. I can recall vividly being treated by certain University connected people as though I was a teen mother and much pearl clutching concerning our decision to have children “so young”.

    I was 26 and Bryan was 28.

    Had we waited until we were “grown ups” in the eyes of the University system, I would probably still have pre-schoolers at home.

    This was twenty years ago. This trend has continued for the past two decades to the point where we have pushed adulthood back to almost thirty. At least for the elite. It is not the Millenials who are guilty of this–for example, the Federal Government has made the position of college student as child quite clear. A student must now be 24, married, have children of their own, have been a ward of the court or be in the military to be considered independent for financial aid.

    In the words of Roald Dahl “A child can’t spoil themselves, you know.”

    • John Sener says:

      I’m a little surprised to hear that someone in your daughter’s university’s health services did that; my experience with my college son has been the opposite (i.e., they were well aware of HIPAA and acted accordingly). While HIPAA represents some momentum back to the days of in loco parentis, my understanding is that students back then had far less agency than they do today. (Of course, it was a very different student population then as well.)

      Your comment reminded me of another point I wanted to cite, which is this: the world our college children inhabit is a far more dangerous place now. When I was in college, I used to hitchhike home on weekends (~100 mi. round trip), and I hitchhiked thousands of miles during my college years and 20s. Almost no one does that anymore. Driving was much easier then — much less traffic, many fewer speeders. The consequences of underage drinking were far less severe and much less aggressively policed. The number of drugs was fewer, and some of them (e.g., marijuana) were reputedly less strong. Sexual relations in that post-60s, pre-AIDS era were much less dangerous, not to mention less complicated. There was much less socioeconomic inequity and far fewer weapons. “Homeland security” has replaced concern about nuclear war one-for-one and is arguably even worse (i.e., less abstract and potentially more immediate), having saturated the media landscape through numerous movies, TV shows, and web sites.

      In short, a more hostile world also reduces agency. Reflecting on the above list, I’m inclined to think today’s college students have more skills for resources for resiliency; it’s the world they live in that is wearing them down…

      • Ceredwyn says:

        The world is safer than it was in the 70’s in many ways. Crime is down. Cars are safer. Drug deaths are actually higher among the 25-35 crowd than the 15-24 set. I would say that your safety in hitchiking had more to do with good luck and gender than things being safer in the 70’s. Traffic deaths, homicide and suicide are the leading cause of death among young people but the actual death and morbidity rate is down.

        The perception of danger is much higher now.

        I think the millennials vaunted “fragility” is a similar misconception. They seem no more fragile than I was twenty years ago. They do seem to be lacking certain skills, because no one is teaching those skills any more. And there is a noisy minority who suffer from the fragility the author of the article cites. I would also point out that “Back in the day” everyone I knew (not exaggerating here) suffered some variety of anxiety or depression. We just never told anyone because there was no point. We’d just get told to buck up and get over ourselves. If Millenials are advocating for themselves in this way, I don’t have a problem with it.

        There’s definitely a “kids these days…” vibe that is quite depressing in all these articles. I keep thinking of a Monty Python-esque bit I’ve seen, “Back in my day we didn’t treat our sewage! We just got Amoebic dysentery and liked it!”

      • John, Ceredwyn and I also expected some serious HIPAA defenses, especially because my wife works in emergency services. Hence our surprise.

        I suppose it could be the case of competing logics: do we adhere scrupulously to this law, or do we bend it to serve students right here? As enrollment pressures continue to escape, the latter must surely be more attractive to many staff and faculty.

  3. Ceredwyn’s point about the divergence between actual danger and our perception of it is crucial and under appreciated for our time. TV news bears much of the blame here.

  4. John Sener says:

    I agree with most of the points you’ve made and want to echo some of them. A lot of this so-called lack of resilience is not so much being developed as discovered now that college students have avenues for self-advocacy instead of suffering alone in silence. In their selective memories of their childhood, adults have been doing the equivalent of walking to school uphill for six miles in the snow both ways for some time now. And the perception of danger is much higher now. However, I think that the world is also more dangerous for youth; they just don’t have the slack we did in so many areas. For instance, cars may be safer, but they are driven faster. So from my perspective both dynamics are in play…

  5. Andy Havens says:

    As I read, observe and teach, I see that part of the “kids these days are so much younger, sillier, foolish, coddled, etc.” language stems from the fact that the Boomers (who monopolize so much of the national conversation regardless of topic) are now observing late-teen children who are *not their own.* That is, the Millennials were mostly the children of Boomers, and so a lot of the “kids these days! pah!” rhetoric over the last 10-20 years has been somewhat mollified by the fact that “these are our kids” (with “us” being the cultural-majority-Boomers). The “kids” in college now are beginning to be the children of GenX. The language being used to describe these kids reminds me a lot of the language Boomers used to describe us (I’m a GenXer) back in the early 1990’s. At ever stage of the Boomer’s passage through the lifecycle of a generation’s culture, they have been critical of how other generations “did that.” This isn’t a criticism of any particular person in that group; some of my best friends are Boomers 😉 But as a dominant bulge in the population, their take on any issue is going to loom large. “Kids today” are different/worse because they are neither the Boomers or their children the Millennials. As a “valley” generation, GenX caught this, as did their parents, the Silents. My son, born in 1999, is, like me, right on the cusp of a new generation. His hasn’t even been named yet as he starts to prepare for college. I’ve heard Generation Z, which is somewhat insulting (Millennials got a word… X and Z just get algebraic ciphers)… and maybe even scary/accusative as “Z” is shorthand, of course, for “Zombie.”

    Anecdotally: the students I’m teaching today are not fundamentally different than those I was teaching 15 years ago when I began as a teacher. Some are clueless, some are on the ball. Most are in the middle. Reminds me of me when I was that age. I knew how (without an Internet) to find out a lot of things on my own, but still needed, at age 18, to ask an “adult” to remind me whether it was colors or whites you washed in cold water.

    • Ceredwyn says:

      I am reminded me of the guy in my dorm (Back in 1989) who asked me how to do laundry. I thought he meant ho to run the coin operated washer and dryer. No, he meant he needed to know how to do it from start to finish. I showed him the tags and he was weirdly astonished that clothes came with *instructions*.

      I’ve heard that anyone who can’t remember Sept 11 referred to as the “Homeland Generation”

      • Andy Havens says:

        My mom made me do laundry several times before I went to college. I just forgot which was which for hot/cold. My brain is like that. I can remember song lyrics after hearing them once, but useful stuff? Not so much.

        I haven’t heard “Homeland” before. We had a couple excellent speakers from BridgeWorks, a generational think-tank and consultancy, and they were using the term “Generation Edge.” Not sure why. I didn’t know I was GenX until I was 26. So I’m not sure there’s a hurry to name them. We were calling Millennials “GenY” for awhile.

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