What's the matter with kids these days?
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.