Friday, August 1, 2008

What's Wrong With Students Today?

Today's online Chronicle Careers is an article by Thomas H. Benton entitled "On Stupidity". In it, he briefly reviews a spate of books warning of America's burgeoning anti-intellectualism. He then lists a number of complaints that come out of his own direct observations as an educator. He sees too many students who are:
  • Primarily focused on their own emotions — on the primacy of their "feelings" — rather than on analysis supported by evidence.
  • Uncertain what constitutes reliable evidence, thus tending to use the most easily found sources uncritically.
  • Convinced that no opinion is worth more than another: All views are equal.
  • Uncertain about academic honesty and what constitutes plagiarism. (I recently had a student defend herself by claiming that her paper was more than 50 percent original, so she should receive that much credit, at least.)
  • Unable to follow or make a sustained argument.
  • Uncertain about spelling and punctuation (and skeptical that such skills matter).
  • Hostile to anything that is not directly relevant to their career goals, which are vaguely understood.
  • Increasingly interested in the social and athletic above the academic, while "needing" to receive very high grades.
  • Not really embarrassed at their lack of knowledge and skills.
  • Certain that any academic failure is the fault of the professor rather than the student.
Among other things, he proposes,

"We need to reverse the customer-service mentality that goes hand-in-hand with the transformation of most college teaching into a part-time, transient occupation and the absence of any reliable assessment of course outcomes besides student evaluations."

I was struck by his recommendations, coming as they do from an undergraduate, university perspective, as they are similar to issues that we are discussing at our seminary. I spent three profitable days last week at a Higher Learning Commission workshop on making student learning assessment a core institutional strategy. Graduate theological education faces many of the same trends and challenges that Benton notes above.

I also increasingly feel the importance of one solution that he does not mention in his article: Libraries can play a significant role in addressing student learning barriers. To the extent that higher education today is trying to make (keep?) education a marketable commodity by side-lining traditional learning environments, it often does so by also diminishing the role of the library. Libraries are significant places of learning, and librarians are well-positioned to engage student interest in learning at that most critical stage of learning: research and discovery.

To misquote Shakespeare, "Stupidity, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere." Libraries are one place, though, where stupidity's light grows dim.

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