Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

those darn millennials?

Stories like this one by Frank Furedi are ubiquitous these days. It’s a refrain sung by many:

Back in 2003, Neil Howe and William Strauss, the authors of the study Millennials Go to College, advanced the thesis that this generation is far less mature and resilient than previous ones. They noted that the millennial generation is far more “closely tied to their parents” than the students that preceded them, and they also insist on a “secure and regulated environment.”

Howe and Strauss concluded that as a result, students today find it difficult to flourish in the relatively unstructured environment of higher education. The assessment that the millennials find it more troublesome to make the transition to independent living on campuses than previous generations is widely held by educators on both sides of the Atlantic.

All I can say is that none of this has been my experience. I’m a pretty tough grader, so I’ve had many complaints about grades over the years, but not discernibly more now than in the past. Once a parent called to yell at me after I failed her daughter for plagiarism, but that was 25 years ago. Some professors complain that they can’t assign long books any more because students won’t read them, but I’ve always assumed that few students of any description will read long books unless you hold them accountable with reading quizzes, so that’s what I’ve been doing since I started teaching literature in 1983. (I learned the practice from my undergraduate mentor, John Burke of the University of Alabama.)

Perhaps — perhaps — my students today are a little more sensitive about criticism than my students of decades ago. But I’m not convinced of it.

So why does my experience differ so greatly from that of many others? Some possibilities:

1) Rosy retrospection by the professorial complainers.

2) Institutional location A: I have spent my career at a highly selective liberal arts college (Wheaton) and a selective program within a university (the Honors Program at Baylor). So my students have been very, very good, but perhaps have not had the unbroken record of triumph that some students from the cultural elite have had: they understand the value of hard academic work but don’t think that perfect success is their birthright.

3) Instututional location B: Wheaton and Baylor are both (though in rather different ways) Christian schools, which means that most of my students come from Christian homes, where they are more likely than many young people to be taught respectf for authorities. Which could mean that they accept the validity of my decisions, or that they complain as much as students elsewhere but not to me. Also, I think that in Christian families academic success may be important but it is never the only thing, and rarely the most important thing: there’s a bit of perspective built in. (It may be noteworthy that here at Baylor the students who have expressed to me the deepest anxiety about grades come from non-Christian homes, but my sample size isn’t large enough for me to conclude that.

Obviously these possibilities are not mutually exclusive; and I may have left out something significant. Any thoughts, friends?


  • I find #2 and #3 highly plausible, and while I'm generally sympathetic to arguments like #1, the amount of smoke around this issues suggests that its very unlikely that there is no fire, and thus that the "professional complainers," though perhaps at times prone to over-generalization and exaggeration, are generally more or less correct.

    At the risk of flattering our host and putting his soul at peril of the sin of pride, a #4 suggests itself - especially good instructors (as marked by strong command of subject matter, strong skills at communicating the importance and content of that subject matter, charisma, and personal empathy) can command the respect and attention of even the weak-kneed and narcissistic millennial. But at all times the bulk of the academic profession has consisted of mediocre instructors (just as the bulk of any profession consists of mediocre practicioners). 30 years ago an "average" instructor could command the respect and attention of undergraduates. Today only the stars can.

    Or perhaps a #5 - its still possible to command the respect and attention of students when you teach "sexy" courses that students find appealing. From reading your blogs over the years I get the impression that you teach a lot of these types of courses. But a University needs to get a mountain of credit hours of Introductory Statistics and Sociology 101 and Basic English Composition taught every year, and the poor schlubs who have to do that particular bricklaying find their students to be increasingly irritable and difficult.

  • Labor contingency makes instructors afraid to assign a lot of reading or writing, given the importance of good student evaluations to getting rehired as an adjunct, so they're unwilling to push to find out just how much work the average undergrad is willing to do.

    And I do think, broadly, that this conversation is hard to have because what we think of as the college experience is so deeply caught up in the experience of a tiny elite. There are over 3000 accredited colleges and universities in the country. My own research tells me that perhaps 125 of them reject more students than they accept. A vast majority of them accept almost every student that applies. Elite schools tend to be small running to very small compared to less exclusive institutions. Meanwhile a majority of students choose their school based first and foremost by geography, with most college students attending school less than 30 miles from where they grew up. The number of people who attended genuinely competitive institutions - say schools that accept 25% or less of applicants - is a truly tiny portion of all college graduates. And college graduates make up only about a third of American adults.

    What we're all finding, broadly, is that the college admissions process of elite colleges works. That is, these elaborate, expensive, and strict screening mechanisms actually do function to exclude the hardest-to-educate students. What makes them hard to educate varies a great deal, but while there are plenty of exceptions - I went to an open enrollment university and I think I was a pretty good student - the students who are most likely to jump into their work uncomplaining are most likely to be the ones that attend elite institutions.

    That doesn't mean you're wrong - in fact I think you're quite right, generally - but it does mean that anything we describe such as the "average college student" is probably too vague a construct to be useful. It's all just hard to say.

  • As a "millennial," I find the generational labeling used by Howe and Strauss frustrating and reductive. I'm not saying that they're necessarily wrong, but just vague enough to never be exactly right. Couldn't just as many of these traits be explained by the explosion of people going to college? Or stagnant wages? Or class and race? Or Apple's mass distribution of mini, hand-held computers?

    But the real problem with Strauss and Howe's theory is that it's repeated enough that truth is assumed. In the end, it's one more avenue to the kind of stereotyping that make charity and tolerance harder.

  • Freddie, thanks for complicating the question usefully. I was awkwardly gesturing towards one of your points when I wrote about my students not thinking perfect success is their birthright, that point being that when people complain about millennial students they usually then cite examples from Ivy League schools and their handful of institutional peers — and those, as you indicate, are scarcely representative. As Ben Nye also suggests in his comment, there's a hell of a lot going on here that's not in any meaningful sense "generational."

    Stephen: I think I do get to teach some pretty cool classes, and a teacher has a great deal more leverage when his or her class is an elective. When people complain you can always suggest that they just drop the course! But I also make a point of teaching a seminar for incoming freshmen every year, in order to keep my "poor schlub" membership up to date.

  • Quite a puzzle. If one grants the contention that millennials as groups are this way or that, I tend to find that charge a little like blaming the victim, since they are the product of forces they didn’t create. Electronic distraction devices loom large. As what point they must accept responsibility for themselves is a good follow-on question. If one refuses to grant the contention, and there are lots of reasons why, including major problems with sample sizes and variability, then the contention become just so much more grousing by those whose responsibility it is to address the issue(s) presented.

    That said, I tend to think that the desire for a secure and regulated environment is eminently understandable but is tantamount to a return to the womb, an infantilizing gesture, and does not match the dynamic needs of adult environments (including higher ed). So whether the basic contention is true, teachers and students share responsibility for getting youngsters ready to navigate adulthood as best they can. The monkey is on everyone’s back.

  • I accidentally deleted a comment by Sheehy, and Blogger offers no way to retrieve deleted comments, but here it is:

    "I’m a high school teacher just older than the millennial label, but I don’t think the Howe and Strauss examples describe even most of my public school students all that well. Through the years my students rarely complain in ways that are particularly unique (I’ve always found it crucial to remember that Shakespeare could write, “Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books, But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.”). That said, the “rich” high school in my city wrestles much more with parental complaints and entitled sentiment that Howe and Strauss seem to hint at, which corroborates the merit behind your #2 (and makes me wonder if its the parents that are more different than the kids). Ben’s comments better capture the differences between my own experience and my students. Their parents can see all their grades all the time on their phones, the teachers are an email away, the kids have iPhones, and they say Kahn Academy is the best tutor anyway. My parents didn’t have the ability to interfere in my life like this generation’s."

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