Professors, you were not normal. You weren’t normal back when you were an undergraduate, and you aren’t normal now. Even back then, you cared about stuff (yes I’ll say “stuff”) that most of your fellow students didn’t even ever think about, and now that you’ve spent so much time studying that stuff, writing about that stuff, credentializing yourself in that stuff, and attempting to stake out status in virtue of your command of that stuff, you care about it so much more. But still—just like back when you were a student—most people, including your students now, don’t care about that stuff. This is not new.
So, please don’t write any opinion piece of the “declinist” variety—the kind that complains that things are worse than they used to be—that cites as an example of the phenomena that students just don’t care anymore. For what such an essay really tells us is how unhappy you are that the world has not changed.
I bring this up now because making the rounds among academics on social media is “Pass, Fail: An inside look at the retail scam known as the modern university” by Ron Srigley, a professor of religious studies at the University of Prince Edward Island. Srigley’s target isn’t just today’s student, but also the education system—college included—that makes them. Have a taste:
the worst fate for our children, yours and mine, is yet to come. Because when the easy pleasures of youth run out and self-affirmation is all students have left, what will remain? Not just bad work and the dreary distractions of the modern entertainment industry—all of which can be tolerated, as bad as they may be—but the absence of something to live for, the highest and most beautiful activity of their intelligence. To cheat them of that is the real crime, and the most profound way in which modern universities have betrayed the trust of an entire generation of young people.
The article touches on a variety of aspects of the modern university, and while there are some developments of legitimate concern, there is a lot in here that is declinist junk food. For a dozen instances, there’s…
- the description that matches some people of any era but is pitched as applying just to today’s kids:
“Rather than learning freely and excelling, they’ve become shrewd managers of their own careers and are forced to compromise what is best in themselves—their honesty or character—in order to “make it” in the world we’ve created for them.”
- the faux data, here lacking both a comparative baseline and showing no change, and so entirely useless in supporting the thesis:
“For the past seven years, I’ve polled my students at the University of Prince Edward Island on two questions. First: If you were told today that a university education was no longer a requirement for high-quality employment, would you quit? Second: If you decided to stay, would you then switch programs? Positive responses to both questions run consistently in the 50 percent range. That means at least half of my humanities students—or about 750 since 2007—don’t want to be there.”
- the “affirm your favorite antecedent” attempt at social science:
“evidence has mounted showing that a bachelor’s degree from a Canadian university brings with it less and less economic earning power… Six months after graduation, the class of 2012 had an average income 7 percent below that of the class of 2005. Two years after graduation, incomes dropped to 14 percent below those of the 2005 class.”
- the disdain for modern technology and technique:
“Serial use of YouTube clips, Prezi presentations, films, and “student-centred learning activities” continues to be peddled for pedagogical relevance.”
- the warning of nihilism:
“Great works—of science, art, literature, philosophy, and history—are the giants on whose shoulders we stand in our efforts to become giants ourselves. The fact that such works may now plausibly be replaced by narcissistic and transparently self-promoting twaddle, or indeed by nothing at all, is a sign of the nihilism of the modern academy.”
- the illustration of an allegedly real phenomena with a fake example:
“…the Disneyfication of your course offerings (Religious Studies 211—“The Whore of North Africa: Augustine Gone Wild in Carthage”)“
- the anecdotes that meet the REO Speedwagon evidentiary standard:
“I have heard of an instructor, one sans PhD, who assigned his students videos of himself talking about this or that subject as their class text.”
- the elision of the important distinction between making and implementing a proposal:
“consider the new “business model” proposed for universities in 2009 by Charles Manning, the chancellor of the board of regents in Tennessee. Manning thought he could save universities a good deal of money by offering students a tuition discount if they agreed to “work online with no direct support from a faculty member”” [the article neglected to mention the vocal opposition to this plan, that Manning retired that year, and any evidence that the model was put in place].
- the “they didn’t do it my way, therefore they probably didn’t do it” leap:
“I was teaching George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I had ordered 230 copies based on enrollment numbers. At the end of term, the bookstore had sold only eighteen copies, a hit rate of about 8 percent.” [It’s available for free, in its entirety, at www.george-orwell.org.]
- the data-less assertion of trends:
“In place of full-time academic staff, the university is filling up with a new class of instructors who march to a different drum. I’m not speaking about occasional or term contract staff, many of whom are first-rate scholars and teachers. The instructors I’m talking about are those with terminal master’s degrees.”
- the inattention to social fads:
“Why not inflate Susan’s and Bill’s grades to ensure that they have a nice experience and don’t feel disrespected?” [Susan and Bill? In Canada in the late 90s, “William” is ranked the 23rd most popular boy’s name in Canada, and “Susan” does not even appear in the top 100 for girls’ names.]
- the author as martyr:
“The student services department itself will guide students to this beatific end and shield them from cantankerous faculty (like me) who insist on raining on the parade by actually attempting to teach them something.”
Plus a bonus: the ironic criticism of “critical thinking” courses… and that’s just a sampling.
The point of the foregoing is not to deny that there are problems with today’s students or today’s university. Of course there are. And maybe Srigley properly identifies some of them. But the declinist grand narrative—tempting as it is to believe—is hard to support, and besides is unnecessary for identifying and fixing real problems.