Response to an article on kids nowadays

At the suggestion of a friend, I am appending (the dictionary definition of append didn’t say it couldn’t go at the beginning) an introduction to this.

I had just purchased a copy of David Berliner’s and Biddle’s The Manufactured Crisis, having lost my copy with all my marginalia several years ago. I was fired up to reread it and take on those who bemoan the low quality of students, teachers, administrators, and even parents “nowadays”. I go almost nowhere without hearing how “everything has changed”…… since when? Since the 50s, since the 1880s, since the bemoaner was in school, ten years ago, since the 60s, since WW II with its greatest generation that was bemoaned by greybeards in the 40s, since last year….. and I’m not kidding about that one – a college freshman returned to my school, looked into a classroom and shook his head and bemoaned.

One year! That’s all it takes for all the wonderful YOU were to slip down the drain and off into the swamp of mediocrity, sin, selfishness, frivolity, and a failure to appreciate the value of a dollar. And it does not matter how many diatribes about the younger generation you produce from past decades and past centuries, the answer always is, “But this time things HAVE gone bad. can’t you see it all around you?” It’s about that time that they yell at some kids to get off the lawn.

Don’t these people see? It’s their focus on what’s wrong with young people, on their failure to meet expectations designed for another generation, that leads to this sense of a lowering of standards. The kids are going their merry way creating their own standards, standards suitable to their time. I’m always buoyed by the sight of a child reading a book. Remember the thrill over the popularity of Harry Potter? The reason for that is that I was raised when there was no T.V., only the radio, and the sign of an educated, aware person was an open book in their hands.

Is that the case now? Are there other things that might engage them….. say, the Internet?

At this point, I confirm in the minds of my many detractors that I am indeed a shallow person blown about my the currents and breezes of whatever is popular and in the news. Most obviously, they point to my embrace of communicative language teaching instead of the tried and true memorization and drill that inculcates L2 into the minds of students. If I were a serious person, I would drag myself, too, through hours of repetitious drill and forget the “fun” stuff of telling students stories and having them tell me stories. After all, what story could be great than the Aeneid; but it takes years of grammar and vocabulary study and memorization to be able to read even one line of Vergil. So serious students, get cracking!

Well, I don’t think it’s all that hard to take apart the disappointments and frustrations of people as they view the younger generation. Nor do I find it at all difficult to give the rationales for my teaching methods, nor to point to successes. It’s just that the critics don’t listen to me; they’ve already decided I am shallow b/c I don’t impose a regimen of grammar study on my students.

So how do we deal with people like the writer of the article I quote from below? He makes good observations; he is informed; he has a certain status well above mine; and he has going for him that everything DOES change, so in a very general sense, he is right: things have changed.

But is that all he is saying? Look at what he says about the current crop of students; they are all negative, minuses, gaps, lacunae. He is saying that while we and all prior generations achieved, no matter how bad our start may have been, these guys nowadays are heading us all over the cliff. After all, how could anyone who writes “4” for “for” in a text message have any appreciation of Homer? So let’s look at the article’s bullet points and unpack them instead of just shaking our heads over “kids these days.”

In an article, a writer listed the following characteristics of students “nowadays”. My response is interspersed.

I did counseling and mental health work as a masters level therapist for 20 years, then taught Latin, Spanish and Russian for 20 years. Retired now, I’m teaching Latin full-time.

I focus on the “bullet points” you make starting in paragraph 25 of An Academic in America: On Stupidity:

Primarily focused on their own emotions ‚?? on the primacy of their “feelings” ‚?? rather than on analysis supported by evidence.

I’ll come back to this one.

Uncertain what constitutes reliable evidence, thus tending to use the most easily found sources uncritically.

The teachers I talk to understand this but find it difficult to bring attention to bear on it b/c the threads and themes throughout a course necessary to develop a sense of this are swamped by “programs” and testing directives geared toward the infamous factory model of education. Engagement, ownership, social context, etc…. all those things academics see as necessary for deep learning, are absent in such classrooms. This level of thinking requires the sort of leisure to reflect. My school has a ubiquitous sign promoting “reflection”, and then sending students on a roller-coaster of scheduled activities and homework precluding reflection. It’s a prep school.

Convinced that no opinion is worth more than another: All views are equal.

This is like trying to make students understand what a disaster it is that people cannot borrow money. They have been told that “borrowing money is bad”. Again, teachers lecture on borrowing money in the economy and ignore the students’ bewildered looks and their questions about the concept b/c they are evaluated on whether they “got through” the material. I overheard one teacher tell her class, “You know what the monastic system is, right??? Monks in their monasteries and that’s where a lot of learning survived…….. OK, so here’s…….” She sure covered monasticism for a bunch of LDS kids, didn’t she?

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.)

The same in-service today that talked about ownership, engagement, social context, etc. talked about plagiarism. Two of the presenters were ASU profs (AZ) whose specialty was educational applications of the internet. They made it very clear that the cut-and-paste world of the internet is very different from the old admonishment: “Don’t copy it out of the encyclopedia.” The thought then was that now they understand what plagiarism is. No, they did not; they understood you couldn’t copy out of the encyclopedia AND THERE WAD NOTHING ELSE TO COPY OUT OF. Few kids used books for such things when I was a kid (the 50s).

Unable to follow or make a sustained argument.

That takes training. Few people in my day and most now cannot follow or make a sustained argument. That’s what educated people do. But what sort of education are kids getting now, now that so many are graduating from high school and going to college? Workbooks, worksheets, 5 paragraph essays and do the odd numbered problems on p. 58. The best students in the school said my class was hard. Hard??? Little homework, easy tests….. what are they talking about? Because you have to think to do the assignments in this class. And looking over their homework in other classes, I can see why they say that.

Uncertain about spelling and punctuation (and skeptical that such skills matter).

There is no clear need for it. It’s that simple. If every teacher required writing and if there was good training in how to write and students were held responsible for it, we might produce people who could spell and punctuation, IF, and ONLY IF, they read a lot, a whole lot. When I went to the English teachers to align my teaching on paragraph construction in Latin/Spanish/Russian, they told me they couldn’t get students to write a coherent sentence, let alone a paragraph. Why not? Many of the students came from schools where 90% of the student body came from Spanish-speaking homes and the English the children spoke was playground English, not academic English learned from reading and kitchen table discussions about the evening news. There is no coherent curriculum for teaching language use. It is NOT the teachers; it is all the crap they are required to go through instead of teach. So who do you get? Mostly people who are only too willing to pass out worksheets and go sit down and work at the computer. (I subbed all last year and heard and saw things like that). MOST teachers I know work hard and try hard, but the rewards (a thin briefcase to take home nights) go to those who are “clever” and find shortcuts to cut down the work load.

Hostile to anything that is not directly relevant to their career goals, which are vaguely understood.

I have seen kids with day planners crammed with activities. Those who have goals start with getting a scholarship to college b/c costs have risen beyond reason. In 1959 I paid $56 for 18 hours at ASU. Now it’s 20 times that much. Families cannot afford college. Even the community colleges are beyond many kids’ means. When I went to college…. well, I know when I got my masters I was told that only 5% of the population has a masters. What is it now? You HAVE to have a college degree and it’s very expensive and you have to put biological imperatives on hold for some years. So getting a scholarship is a necessity and that means straight As, not a SINGLE B, plus myriad athletic, social, charitable, religious, community, and artistic activities (one from column A and one from column B). That is why they are so tense and so jealous of their time and so contemptuous of anything that doesn’t advance their cause and frustrated by attempts to make the stop and reflect. They’re told it’s either this mind-numbing schedule or the grocery cart in the park.

Increasingly interested in the social and athletic above the academic, while “needing” to receive very high grades.

See the above. Many blow off steam by wallowing in hedonistic activites. My son went to an up-scale public high school and told me how the top achievers were the wildest kids on the weekends. It didn’t help that mon and dad often took off for days at a time leaving the kids alone with the keys, the car, and the credit card. Their experience has been not academic but a grind of the aforementioned worksheets, workbooks, five paragraph essays, etc. The teachers who care about such academic prep as you want are the frustrated ones who leave.

Not really embarrassed at their lack of knowledge and skills.

Their whole career in school, if they are good students, and most of what they read in the press or hear on TV and the radio, is how stupid they are, how inept they are, how undisciplined they are, and they tend to believe those things, partly, in my opinion, b/c that’s what the dominant religion in country teaches. You can thank the Neocons and other right wing conservatives who bad mouth public education (so they can get their own brand in there). I have for years asked my students what they think of themselves, of other students, and what they think the outside world thinks of them; the answers are depressing. People like David Berliner who shows that American kids in good schools – not private, up-scale schools but just ones that don’t have sewerage backing up into the classrooms – compare favorably with the highest scorers on internation tests: the Finns and the Swedes. We still refuse to admit that the Southern strategy and other political subterfuges have left a good part of this country functioning under third world conditions. Factoring in those kids makes our ed system look bad, but, given half a chance, our teachers make it work, at least until they leave.

Certain that any academic failure is the fault of the professor rather than the student.

Sure. Why take the blame for what you perceive to be an impossible situation? What about teachers who design tests to separate out kids, regardless of how much they have learned. They are constantly in competition with other kids and they constantly fear failure. I had to work harder with my top students in my public high school to get them to relax. You can’t learn a foreign language unless you are relaxed enough to focus on meaning. The students at my current school are also under pressure and are very nervous about grades. My class (and others) are a place they can express themselves, inquire into things that interest them…. all b/c I set my own curriculum, my own agenda, my own pace – all in consonance with my students’ needs.

I would suggest you read Frank Smith, Alfie Kohn, David Berliner, and others – I suppose they would be called “progressives”, to gain an understanding of the conditions in our schools and in our society that lead to the problems you list. When you simply list them like this (I have a huge amount of experience in this as I participate in 6 listservs for foreign language teachers) you feed into the notion that kids nowadays are different from those of the halcyon days of the 50s. This is a distortion of what’s going on.

So back to your first bullet:

Primarily focused on their own emotions ‚?? on the primacy of their “feelings” ‚?? rather than on analysis supported by evidence.

This requires a sociological analysis I am trying to perform on this blog under the heading The Basics. But an understanding of the psychology and sociology of human behavior can account for the apparent focus on one’s emotions and their expression. I’ll leave that for my blog.

Pat Barrett

Pat Barrett

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