​SPINKS: Don’t blame millennials for higher-ed trends

Many criticisms of today’s college students aren’t grounded in educational realities

Sweeping critiques of the millennial generation almost always make me cringe. We’ve heard it all before — modern 20-somethings feel entitled, we don’t acknowledge authority and we don’t appreciate the opportunities that are presented to us. In his column last week, Jake Olson offered an examination of declining “classroom etiquette” and although his argument was more nuanced than some — he at least linked to a few academic studies about changing cultural trends — I nonetheless found it unconvincing. More than that, I was insulted by his suggestion (via Prof. Lou Bloomfield) that University students simply do not respect professors or their attempts to educate us.

To Bloomfield, it seems “People are happy with less. They want a college degree but not a college education.” Throughout his column Olson largely supports this assumption. From Olson’s perspective, there are several factors that contribute to the lack of “classroom etiquette,” as well as a trend that students treat their University education with “less than the utmost respect” it deserves. He cites, first, the “increasing number of individuals being offered an education” as a cause of students’ declining respect for their own and professors’ time. He suggests the advent of technology has made students less inclined to pay attention in class. He sees the fact that students often leave class early or may show up a few minutes late as indicative of unconcern for their education.

There are a number of flaws with Olson’s argument. Beginning with the most easily addressed, it is easy to prove (at least anecdotally) that zipping up your backpack at 47 minutes after the hour is not an intentional display of disrespect for a professor, nor an indication that you don’t want an education. It is difficult to achieve the perfect class schedule. Pure logistics may necessitate leaving one class early to make it to another on time. A desire to get to class demonstrates an investment in education, not a disregard for it. Further, passionately involved undergraduates are one of the best aspects of our University community. Full course loads in addition to often full-time extracurricular obligations (and possibly a paying job) means squeezing every possible minute out of the day — and occasionally making sacrifices. Being anxious to get out of class (especially when the professor is cutting it close on time) only suggests that a student has commitments of equal importance at specific times. I am not supporting consistently leaving early or being disruptive. But leaving a class early does not necessarily mean that a student was distracted or neglecting their notes for 95 percent of class time.

Likewise, classification of e-mail communication with professors or the use of laptops in lecture as lacking proper collegiate “etiquette” is fairly ridiculous. It seems obvious that students should, in fact, prefer e-mail. It is a much more effective use of students’ precious time. Speaking for myself, I have never once skipped office hours because I did not value my own time — I skipped because I did value it. I am a huge advocate of utilizing office hours — my first-year self would not have passed Calculus without them. And I agree we’re not taking full advantage of our University experience without fostering meaningful relationships with our distinguished faculty. But one need not forego e-mail or digital note-taking in order to prove their commitment to education.

Finally, it is important to qualify Olson’s claim that more people than ever are enrolling in college, and that this has (allegedly) led to a devaluing of a college education. According to a study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, “Today's entering freshmen are more financially advantaged than their predecessors… as they come from households whose incomes are much higher.” We need to be precise about who exactly has access to a college education. The accessibility gap is widening, and if anything, this truth makes those who lie outside the mean more appreciative of their education, not less. I came to the University with a keen awareness of the fact that these four years were not available to everyone. I know that a combination of incredibly hard work and a few very lucky breaks led to my enrollment. Maybe University students broadly do not agree with that assessment, but it is a slap in the face to those who treasure their education to suggest that any behavior (whether skipping a class or missing office hours) could delegitimize a value system.

Apparently, students valuing the “return on investment” of their degree rather than the experience of earning it is also not a new trend, and in fact, has its roots in our parents’ generation. Much of the growth in the percentage of students who rate highly the importance of "being well off financially" occurred from 1966 to 1987, when it increased from around 42 to 74 percent. In fact, recently the percentages of students that rate both “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” and “becoming a community leader” as highly important aspects of their college education have increased. It is easy to disparage new technology and even easier to critique the millennial generation. But do those critiques reflect reality or paint a fair picture of student engagement or mutual respect at this University? In my experience, absolutely not.

Ashley Spinks is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at a.spinks@cavalierdaily.com.

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