Concerted Effort: Whose fault is it when kids just want to “get by”?

A few days ago, my brother forwarded me an article posted on Yahoo News regarding the results of a study that showed that, “Today’s American high school students are far likelier than those in the 1970s to believe they’ll make outstanding spouses, parents and workers.” The researchers who conducted the study also concluded that teens today are “also more likely to claim they are ‘A’ students with high IQs–even though research shows that today’s students do less homework than their counterparts did in the 1970s.” My brother was curious about my take on the study and its findings because I am a university writing instructor who works almost exclusively with college freshmen.

Now, I’ll admit I have a problem with the connection the article seems to draw between IQ scores and homework completion: when it comes to homework, I think the quality of the assignments–not the amount of work assigned–is what does or does not contribute to student learning. But I also find that, while I don’t necessarily believe–as the study’s author clearly does–that indulgent parents and well-meaning teachers are wholly to blame for what seems to be an overconfidence problem among our youth, I do see evidence of the phenomenon the article describes: that is, I often see a contrast between the actual skill level of many of my students and their own perception of their abilities. It’s a disconnect that creates some degree of conflict, particularly early in the semester, as my students try to adjust to my high expectations for the work they produce in my class. What is more troubling, though, is what seems to be an ever-increasing number of students who expect an A or B in my class, regardless of the level of effort they’ve put into their work.

I do not wish to give the impression that the majority of my students are lazy and whiny, because that is not the case. But I can say that the number of students who are lazy and whiny has increased over the last few years. Whereas I used to get frustrated at “that one student” who put little effort into the class but still expected a high grade, I now find myself dismayed over the several students I have who exhibit such behavior.

One such student this semester is a young man who frequently makes comments in class about my “hard grading,” and talks to me one on one about how “unfair” the grades are. My department on campus does not give ‘D’ grades; students must earn at least a ‘C’ or they will need to repeat the class. This particular student did not pass the first essay (many don’t, though the majority rise to the occasion and pass the second essay, and continue to make huge gains in their writing from there), and he earned a grade of ‘C-‘ on the second essay. He felt that he should pass the first essay simply because of his “effort,” and felt the ‘C-‘ was just as unfair, for similar reasons.

Because I am a writing instructor, I grade my students’ essays by assessing how well they fulfill their purpose in their paper; in other words, I grade the actual writing: Do they have enough content? Is the content relevant to their thesis? Is the paper organized so that a reader can understand how the points made relate to one another? Is the style indicative of a college-level writer? To grade on effort when there are problems at every one of these levels would, to my mind, be irresponsible. In a math class, one would not expect to fail the tests but still pass the class simply because of the “effort” one has put forth. My class is no different; my students need to leave having learned how to present themselves as college-level writers. If they are not doing that by the end of the semester, I cannot pass them, and to do so would send the message that the content of the course–the skills, strategies, and techniques that I teach–are really not necessary for someone to master. Because I know how much people are empowered when they know how to write well, I insist that my students master this material–if not under my instruction, then in another semester, with another instructor.

The student mentioned above was particularly frustrated about the ‘C-‘ grade because the first few paragraphs of his second paper were much improved over the performance he exhibited in the first essay. He did not understand why, since I had pointed this out in my comments, he did not get a higher grade on the second essay. The rest of his paper, however, was incredibly underdeveloped and did not fully argue the idea he presented in his thesis. Still, he felt he should get a higher grade. I asked him to consider this scenario: if he had hired a painter to paint his house, and the painter had done a thorough, meticulous job on one wall, but a messy, unfinished job on the rest of the house, would he pay the painter the full amount, or instead demand that the rest of the walls match the quality of the first? He got the point, but was still annoyed nonetheless.

Another student has been frustrated that she is failing my class, but her frustration has not spurred her to action. She often asks me, “What could I do to get a better grade in your class?” I’ve answered by saying that she could: 1.) stop texting during class and instead pay full attention to the instruction; 2.) stop chatting with her friend during class, and instead stay engaged in the work we are doing; 3.) copy down the deadlines I write on the board, and then honor them. Though she has trouble trying to meet any of these “demands” (which to me seem less like demands and more like obviously good study habits), she still claims that she is hoping to pass the class. The other day, she mentioned that she will have to miss an important deadline because she will be “driving home for Thanksgiving” the day before the deadline. The University gives us an entire week off for Thanksgiving, but still, this student feels she needs to begin her vacation early. My class is at 9:00 in the morning, which means this student could easily attend my class on the day in question and leave afterwards, but she is choosing not to follow such a course of action. In addition, though the class was expected to have completed the book we are reading by Monday of this week, she has not done so.

These behaviors on their own might be annoying enough, but what makes them especially frustrating to me is that they are being practiced by people who want to say that I am just “unfair” with my standards and expectations, that I ask too much from my students. To me, their complaints reveal at the very least that they have little understanding of the link between habits and performance: clearly they feel they have skills that are going “unrewarded” in my classroom, but they don’t see that their own behavior often keeps them from improving and from producing the kind of work that I expect from students in a university.

As I mentioned at the onset of this blog entry, the study’s author, Jean Twenge, blames parents and teachers for the gap between teens’ perception of their talents and their actual skill levels. According to the article, Twenge feels that because “Mom and Dad [are] handing out endless praise,” today’s youth believe that, “they are somehow superior.” Twenge also blames teachers who, according to the article, “give out an ‘A’ grade more easily than their counterparts did in the 1970s.”

While parents and teachers may contribute to this phenomenon, they can’t possible be held solely responsible for it. Our young people today are being raised in a culture that does not value education. We say that we do, but ultimately we value it only to the extent that it creates workers. “Go to college,” we tell our teenagers, so that you can “get a good job.” We quote them statistics that show that college graduates make significantly more money than those who do not graduate from college. This rhetoric sets up college as a means to an end: people are there to go through the motions, to “take” classes and move through the requirements so that they can finally “get out” and get a job in the “real world.” Why, then, would the experience of “higher education” be about learning while you are there? Students often tell me that they don’t expect to have to write the way that I expect them to write (meaning, I suppose, with coherence and clarity) in their eventual professions. What they are asking, really, is, “How will this help me in my job?”

I think that being able to think critically, to understand texts, and to represent oneself well in writing are essential skills, not just for a job, but for life, for the role of a citizen in which my students will vote on complex issues and serve on juries and make decisions about whom they want to lead them. The more one learns, the more one is able to understand all kinds of information–not just the kind that is presented to them through books in school–and thus the the less likely one is to be exploited or taken advantage of by others. Learning is an end in itself, not just a means to an end. But how can we expect our young people to understand such a concept when they live in a world in which Barack Obama is criticized by his opposition as being an “intellectual elitist”? Obama may have won the election, but the idea that “intellectuals” are impractical or unappealing is still prevalent in our society. One can’t be both practical and an intellectual; academic pursuit is only valued by our society to the extent that it produces a “practical” result, in the form of a “good job.” And so philosophy and Humanities majors are made the butt of jokes because one can’t “do” anything with those degrees.

It is no wonder, then, that in the face of such messages, our students have come to view their classes as something to get through, in which they show up and the teacher gives them the grade they need to move on. It naturally comes as a shock to them that a teacher might require that they show evidence of having actually learned the material; it comes as a surprise that the teacher regards her material as important. That students seem to want to be rewarded for what they already know–and not for exhibiting their understanding of what I teach in my class–says less about “U.S. Teens” and more about the culture that has produced them.

If we want to continue to evolve as a society, to solve the problems that we face today, we need to stop blaming parents and teachers for raising kids who are too “overconfident,” and instead look to ourselves to foster a culture that values learning for learning’s sake. A society does not evolve on great workers alone; it needs great thinkers who challenge the status quo and innovate worn-out systems. Until we create more of a space for thinking and reflecting in our culture, we should expect that our youth will become ever less interested in thought and reflection. What will be an even greater shame is if we encourage this to happen by continuing to reward our youth for doing the minimal amount it takes to get by.

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About Sarah

Grammar goddess, cultural critic, full-time media junkie. I read, I bake, I watch tv. And then I write about it.
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One Response to Concerted Effort: Whose fault is it when kids just want to “get by”?

  1. Dan says:

    I remember writing an essay in freshman year about how pissed off I was to experience that college is so much more vocational than it is about learning for learning’s sake. This was at the tutoring center (LAC)… did you ever send me to tutoring???

    “Learning is an end in itself, not just a means to an end.” right on.

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