Friday, February 06, 2009

What's the matter with kids these days?

Here's one of those "God, students are stupid these days" laments from a college professor, Thomas Bertonneau: part I, part II, part III. (HT: Mad Latinist via email.)

My question when confronting these kinds of rants is always this: Are people actually getting dumber, or is it just that a lot more people are going to college now than before? If the latter is true, the average caliber of college student could drop precipitously, even though the population as a whole is getting more educated, not less. In the past, only a small fraction of people went to college, and they tended to come from wealthy and/or well-educated families. Now a lot of people go to college whose parents did not, and who did not come from "literary" backgrounds. In addition, talented students are perhaps more willing to sacrifice to attend a college more prestigious than Professor Bertonneau's than they were in days gone by. So maybe this professor is just seeing students lower on the intellectual totem pole than in the past, rather than witnessing a catastrophic collapse in humanity's intellectual capacity.

That being said, I have heard similar laments from just about every college level teacher I know, and most of them are quite liberal. (Bertonneau seems rather conservative in his mindset). And some of them have taught at very prestigious universities. So I don't think I can dismiss his observations out of hand. I'd be interested to hear what professors at places like Harvard and Yale have to say about long-term changes in student's writing skills. I think those places have become more academically selective over the past couple decades, so if their students' writing skills are heading into the crapper, then there's definitely something broader at work.

Here's my take: The average professor probably has an IQ of 130 (according to what my therapist said a while back). The average person has an IQ of 100. That's two standard deviations lower than the professor. So to the professor, a large portion of humanity is going to seem almost unbearably stupid. In the past, the professor didn't have to deal with them because they weren't showing up in class. But now they are. And there's nothing smart people hate more than having to deal with the intellects of not-smart people. Smart people of course deal with average people all the time in their day-to-day lives (though jobs, social circles, families, and spouses do tend to sort themselves by intellect). But smart people usually don't have to confront the way not-smart people think. Professor Bertonneau does not have that luxury. Hence the bitterness.

Another question: Are students getting dumber, or are they just getting more different from their professors? Is this a symptom of the ever-increasing speed of technologically driven change in our society? The old professor, unable to adapt to new modes of thought, condemns what is different as stupid, inferior, a throwback to pre-literacy. But maybe these students are very sharp in their own arenas of comfort and when discussing subjects that actually interest them. I like The Odyssey. But maybe his students find the subject matter boring and irrelevant. If they are more concerned with getting jobs, being cool, and finding love than with the differences and similarities between Homer and Virgil, is that really surprising?

Or is it just due to the fact that every year, Professor Bertonneau becomes another year older than his students? They don't age! They're still eighteen or nineteen. So as the professor grows older and wiser and more learned, by comparison the students seem younger and dumber and more ignorant.

And have we not seen Professor Bertonneau's rant turn up in every generation? Indeed, has any professor in the history of professors ever said, "I am so happy that the students of this generation are much smarter than my generation ever was! Thank God these young scholars have arrived to rescue our culture from the philistinism endemic in their elders!"? I have never read such a statement. Now it could be that we've been in constant intellectual decline as a species, so all those "kids these days" rants are true. But it could also be that the younger generations will always seem hopelessly obtuse to the members of the intellectual gerontocracy due to perceptual issues like those I've discussed above. I think it's clear which kind of explanation I tend to favor.


Anonymous Thomas F. Bertonneau said...

A "rant" would be an irate comment linked only tenuously to observable reality indicating a tendency of some kind on the part of the utterer or author. The author of "What, Me Read," I come reluctantly to my conclusions after two-and-a-half decades of observation and despite my fondness for many of the students whom I describe at a purely personal level. They're kids, after all, and most are "nice." But they show no sign of being able to do the intellectual things that a complex society will require them to do. So far as they are typical, this is an alarming phenomenon.


Thomas F. Bertonneau

1:27 AM, February 09, 2009  
Blogger Zachary Drake said...

Thank you for commenting, Professor Bertonneau. I agree that your essay was not a rant. It was a sustained discussion of a disturbing lack of intellectual capacity that you have observed in your students. Many of the examples you describe made me cringe, and in general I share your concerns about the weak mental capabilities of humans in general.

I was wondering if you could address some of the possibilities I raise in my post. I don't doubt the decline in intellectual quality that you are observing in your students. What I wonder is whether this is due to a broad decline in the intellectual capabilities of young people in our society, or whether it is due to the shifting demographics of people who attend college.

If the decline is broad-based and caused by various widespread cultural and technological factors, then there may be cause for an enormous amount of alarm and despair. If the content of our culture is really crippling people mentally at a much greater rate than in the past, we are indeed in trouble as a society. But if the decline in student intellectual quality is simply due to the larger number of people attending college, then we have a lesser (but still significant) problem on our hands.

It is clear from your essay that you believe cultural factors are responsible, but I'm trying to point out that there are other possibilities. You may in fact be right, but I think we need to gather more data before coming to that conclusion.

2:36 AM, February 09, 2009  
Anonymous Thomas F. Bertonneau said...

Thank you, Zachary.

I am a qualitative observer, not a quantitative one. I don't claim that my argument is scientific. It is merely closely observed and rooted in a long period of study.

It is true, as you say, that colleges now admit larger numbers of students than they used to. A dilution of competency is probably inevitable given the egalitarianism of existing admissions-standards. I might say, however, that my UCLA dissertation director finds my samples of student prose typical of those that he sees. UCLA is a top-level state university. SUNY College Oswego is a second-level state college. If the UCLA professor sees the same things that the SUNY Oswego professor sees, that is some corroboration of the guess that what the SUNY Oswego professor sees is not peculiar, but (more or less) universal in context.

I do think that cultural forces are largely responsible. Of course, the phrase "cultural forces" indicates a hugely complicated background. I cannot help but believe, even so, that the "flashing lights" and "sound effects" to which I refer in the article are non-trivial sources of stultification.

Once images replaced words (printed words) as the main medium of knowledge, shortly after WWII, processes started in motion that were bound to be intellectually corrosive in the largest sense because the printed word is the basis of literate society, but is also fragile. The light-and-sound diversions address the same optical sense that is required to immerse oneself in written discourse or narrative, after all.

I recommend Walter Ong's ORALITY AND LITERACY and Neil Postman's AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH as important discussions of what is at stake when non- or anti-literate stimuli compete with the written word in a technically and morally sophisticated society.


Tom Bertonneau

3:16 AM, February 09, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Bertonneau,

I am curious about the relationship between literacy and the ability to analyze and understand movies.

Have you considered the possibility that some of your undergraduate students might be learning disabled? Have you encountered any students who are quite well equipped for high level reading and writing but cannot "read faces" in movies? The inability to "read faces" is a marker for several neurological/cognitive conditions.
Perhaps the quality or volume of sound is a problem for some students. Some of your undergraduates may be quite adept at reading comprehension but have difficulty processing sound or may simply be slightly hard of hearing.
Do you provide an opportunity for students to watch the same movie twice? After all, one of the benefits of books is that one can go back and reread.
Best, Jessica

Best, Jessica

5:46 AM, February 15, 2010  

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