Professors, You Were Not Normal


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.

donuts

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…

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.”
  5.  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.”
  6. 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”)
  7. 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.”
  8. 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].
  9. 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.]
  10. 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.”
  11. 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.]
  12. 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.

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HighFGhost
HighFGhost
5 years ago

Good job finding the mistakes Justin.

Here’s another. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s way too popular considering how useless it is. But essentially it’s the practice of calling one’s students “narcissistic” which is an adjective, but also a personality disorder. Long story short and among other things, doing that is ableist and tends to be victim-blaming.

But before everyone chimes in with a joke at this author’s expense, I, random pseudonomynous Daily Nous commentator, want to ask people not to do too much of that. One reason to be optimistic about university teaching in general, is an apparent move towards inclusiveness. And making fun of a professor who doesn’t have some superfancy research position with PhD students, pages of publications on his CV, and all that jazz, isn’t really in the spirit of inclusiveness.Report

The boring one
The boring one
5 years ago

Nice. You could call this an FJM treatment of Srigley’s argument (as is done on Gin and Tacos, which incidentally also gave the FJM treatment to an education related argument recently): http://www.ginandtacos.com/tag/fjm/Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
5 years ago

I smell benthamite pushpin egalitarianism. Declinism is hard to support because of the expansion of education to the masses. There is no decline in this respect, as the masses have never been interested in education for its own sake. Some people flourish in the lab or with their nose in a book, while others can only flourish behind the plow. This is what you tacitly admit when you point out that professors aren’t normal. You are quite right. The normal person avoids deep and reflective thought at all costs.Report

GhostRideTheWhip
GhostRideTheWhip
Reply to  YAAGS
5 years ago

The plough is probably a pretty okay place to flourish (where “pretty okay” denotes a perfectly respectable place on the scale of whatever it is that we’re measuring here).

And don’t forget, some unlikely candidates might flourish in the lab too.

Not that you explicitly said anything inconsistent with that. But I guess *I SMELLED* some [Proper Noun]-ite elitism.

PS: Lulz!Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  YAAGS
5 years ago

I’ve had the privilege of spending the last few summers working alongside those who are flourishing behind the plow. Not only are many of them flourishing better than many (qualified, intelligent, hard working) young academics I know, they are also by and large as thoughtful and reflective about their place in the world as the reflective and thoughtful academics I’ve had the privilege to work along side in the fall and spring.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  YAAGS
5 years ago

There is indeed nothing wrong with good hard honest labor. I meant what I said. Though I’m afraid I don’t share Derek Bowman’s anecdotal evidence that many normal people are thoughtful and reflective. My anecdotal evidence suggests the opposite. It would probably be better to simply look at what the American middle class spends their time and money on. Do they read Ovid and Nietzsche, do they bump up on their calculus and go through beautiful mathematical proofs, do they read up on the latest advances in physics or biology in a rigorous way by actually trying to educate themselves, or do they watch reality tv?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  YAAGS
5 years ago

“Do they read Ovid and Nietzsche, do they bump up on their calculus and go through beautiful mathematical proofs, do they read up on the latest advances in physics or biology in a rigorous way by actually trying to educate themselves, or do they watch reality tv?”

As stated, that’s a demanding bar – I have a physics PhD and reading up on “the latest advances in physics… in a rigorous way” is usually beyond me. But popular science, in book and TV form, is booming, and lots of it is very good.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

Obviously you’ve never seen “Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman”.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  YAAGS
5 years ago

No, but as a matter of logic I don’t think it could invalidate my claim. “Lots”isn’t synonymous with “all”.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

People might be justified in accepting the testimony of scientists without any real understanding of the material. When the show just happens to be right, their beliefs about the science may even be true. But alas, K =/= JTB. There are too many fake barns like “Through the Wormhole”. The point being that I’m not sure popular science counts as an intellectual pursuit. If it doesn’t lead to any knowledge or understanding then it’s probably just entertainment. Obviously people are resistant to the idea that one simply can’t understand the physics without understanding the math. That would suck. We want to be able to gain some knowledge or understanding without having to do a ton of work. Perhaps we also find the idea that any poor schlub can gain knowledge of the fundamental nature of reality through the work of scientists attractively egalitarian. Unfortunately, the fact that one wants something and finds it attractive doesn’t make it true. I don’t know, maybe one could argue that popular science still counts as an intellectual pursuit because it stimulates our imagination in a distinctively intellectual way. I’d be open to hearing an argument to that effect if you have one.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

That’s a ridiculously demanding epistemic standard. By that standard, hardly anyone knows that there was a Big Bang, or that stars are other suns, or that the Earth is billions of years old, or that matter is made of atoms. Virtually all our scientific knowledge is via testimony, and that’s true even for scientists’ own scientific knowledge.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

The point wasn’t that there isn’t knowledge from testimony about fairly established facts. It’s that when it comes to things beyond the standard model there’s too much testimony. Most of the people watching reliable shows are just as liable to believe crazy crap if they were watching the wrong show because they lack the understanding to discern what’s crazy and what isn’t. Similarly, most people can know that many scientific theories and mathematical theorems are true by testimony without the remotest understanding of the content of the claims. But this knowledge seems far, far too superficial to count as the result of intellectual inquiry.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

I think that’s overly pessimistic about post-standard-model popular science, but let’s stipulate for the moment that you’re right. That still leaves the overwhelming bulk of popular science. If scientifically interested lay people only manage to educate themselves about the fruits of scientific discovery within the domain of validity of the standard model, that’s still pretty good.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

I think you’re still failing to see the difference between knowing that p is true and understanding p. Intellectual inquiry is really aimed at understanding. Popular science can help people know that, say, quantum field theory is true, but it is extremely doubtful that most popular science programs can really help people understand quantum field theory. More specifically, I’m not sure anyone can really understand GR or SR or things like the double slit experiment with the sort of visualizations popular science uses. You probably just need to know the math. But again, none of this interferes with people’s ability to know that these theories are true by testimony. It’s just that this knowledge isn’t super valuable.

(To preempt the obvious pedantic objection: no, I’m not saying that understanding can’t be reduced to propositional knowledge. It’s just that understanding p will usually involve a lot more propositional knolwedge about what is involved in p than what is involved in simply knowing that people is true.)Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

*… than what is involved in simply knowing that p is true.)*

Damn autocorrect doesn’t recognize propositional variables.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

That’s not my experience. I’ve had plenty of conversations with people where I have, I think, succeeded in communicating some significant part of the content of a mathematised physical theory to someone without them grasping the mathematical content; furthermore, I’ve repeatedly had the experience of having myself gained a qualitative understanding of an area of physics from a no rigorous, partly-verbal description and then subsequently confirmed that I’d basically understood it okay when I learned the mathematised version. Of course you can’t *completely* understand something without studying it at the research level; but partial understanding isn’t no understanding.

Incidentally, I would say that the style of physics that philosophers often learn – especially for topics like QFT and GR – is so austerely mathematical and disconnected from application and example that it would be difficult to convey any of its content without serious maths. But that’s a weakness of the way philosophers (often) do physics, nothing deeper.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

Are you talking about the sort of understand of GR one gets from the bowling ball on a sheet example? I suppose that gives one some very basic understanding, but it is fairly shallow. One can’t use it to draw inferences or make predictions. Moreover, there will be important points about the theory that won’t be obvious from the example. E.g., one might get some understanding of SR from such examples, but it will still leave you bewildered regarding simole questions, like what happens to a ball traveling across a gap at close to the speed of light.Report

iGhostFiveOnit
iGhostFiveOnit
Reply to  YAAGS
5 years ago

I like you YAAGS.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  YAAGS
5 years ago

I certainly wouldn’t presume to make a claim about most people – academics or not – based on my own personal experience. No doubt there is a mutual selection effect in the dispositions of people I associate with. But if you haven’t seen any evidence of very many thoughtful and reflective people outside academia, it may be simply because you don’t approach people in other walks of life with the humility of assuming you have at least as much to learn from them as they have to learn from you.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

Humility is just as much an intellectual vice as arrogance. The mean between the vices is the measured confidence that arises from a dispassionate analysis of one’s own abilities. No doubt there are many non-academics who know much more than I, such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers. But this is a non sequitur. First, I didn’t draw a distinction between academics and non-academics. I made a claim about normal people. That is, a claim about the average human being. Second, someone can possess a great amount of knowledge and still be completely unreflective and anti-intellectual. Similarly, someone can possess virtually no formal education and yet still live a life of contemplation. Though if they do not seek out readily available knowledge relevant to their interests then their contemplation is revealed to be little more than intellectual masturbation. Third, there are many people who simply do not have an interest in intellectual pursuits. Rather, they live their lives for their families, their work, their hobbies, or simply to engage in mindless pleasures of food, drink, sex, and television. My point is that the average person almost certainly falls into one of these categories. Not all of them will be explicit philistines. Many of them will pay lip service to things like intellectual curiosity. They may even be willing to engage in intellectual conversations now and again. But their character is revealed through their decision to use their free time to engage in other non-intellectual pursuits. I’m certainly not denigrating people who live for their hobbies and their families. (Though I quite happily look down upon people who just live to get drunk and watch tv.) Intellectual inquiry isn’t for everyone. But I don’t put much stock in the folksy idea that everyone is a special snowflake with their own wisdom regardless of how they choose to spend their time. Wisdom takes effort.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  YAAGS
5 years ago

If you care to submit evidence about what the “average” person is like, please go ahead. My claim was about the indeterminate quantifier “very many.” But assuming that one has the ability to judge the character of “average” or “normal” people based on the existence of cultural products you dislike (e.g. “reality TV”) shows anything but a “measured” confidence in one’s abilities. Given such presuppositions, it doesn’t surprise me that you’re not well positioned to take notice of the

But certainly if you judge me by what I do with my free time, rather than the working hours I spend on active inquiry, I suspect you’ll find me lacking as well. Right now I’m about to relax by playing Starcraft II (www.starcraft2.com); later I may watch another episode of the Netflix original series “Daredevil” with my wife.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

Are you suggesting that the average person does in fact spend his or her free time engaged in intellectual pursuits? Is that really the default assumption that we should make given all of our mundane evidence? Do I really bear the burden of showing that the average American doesn’t spend his or her Sunday evening reading Milton? At any rate, it seems like you didn’t really finish your thought, so I’ll just point out two things. (1) Obviously I only talked about how people spend their free time because I was assuming that most people don’t have highly intellectually stimulating jobs. I think this is a fairly safe assumption, but maybe you want proof of that too. I also spend my free time in non-intellectual pursuits. But this is because I spend the majority of my day reading and writing philosophy and by the time I’m done I’m mentally exhausted. Note that this is also why I talked about the middle class. One can hardly blame blue-collar workers for not having the time or energy for intellectual pursuits. (2) I think you read too much into my use of the term ‘character’. Like I said, I don’t think everyone who has a non-intellectual character is thereby vicious. The only people I disdain are openly hedonistic philistines. The people who think that life is just about partying and that intellectual pursuits are for losers who can’t get laid. And no, I am not claiming that the average person is an openly hedonistic philistine. But I can assure you that they exist. If you think the life of an openly hedonistic philistine is just as valid as the life of someone like Einstein, then I suppose that’s your prerogative. The universe is obviously indifferent to such matters, so we’ll just have to agree to disagree.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

I’m claiming that there are a variety of ways of reflectively engaging with the world and thinking about one’s place, and not all of them involve frequent engagement with classical texts. And I’m claiming that many people (most people? the average person? I don’t know know) engage in these activities. Academics and scholars don’t have a monopoly on thoughtfulness about the world. I do find that my life and my understanding of my place in the world have been, and continue to be, enhanced by studying classical works of philosophy and literature. But I’ve also seen others who have reached many of the same virtues and insights that I have with much less time spent pouring over such texts, and more time spent actually living their lives and interacting with others in thoughtful ways.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

Like I said, I wasn’t making a claim about academics and scholars. Unless you tell me what those other ways of reflectively engaging with the world are, I can’t really evaluate what you’re saying. I think the primary form of intellectual inquiry consists in weighing evidence for or against a specific thesis. In this respect, you are unlikely to be very successful if you ignore what other people have said. You will essentially be shutting yourself off from a wide range of evidence. Perhaps you are referring to ascetic practice. I laud anyone who can rigorously sit and practice zazen for several hours a day. But I wouldn’t count this as a form of intellectual inquiry. It’s a bit like aesthetic appreciation; a different virtue entirely.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  YAAGS
5 years ago

If you’re finding food, drink,sex and TV to be “mindless pleasures”, you’re doing them wrong.Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

Thank you, David. I was hoping to be the first to say that, but it’s no shame to be only in a position to second your statement!Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

I suppose no pleasure is truly mindless insofar as all pleasures are mental states. One can no doubt say the same thing about the euphoria of heroin. But for some reason I’m still reluctant to say that getting blitzed ever counts as an intellectual enterprise. Perhaps this is because I have an overly narrow conception of intellectuality as involving complex thought.Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

Rather than narrow vs broad, I think the point is that you have an overly abstract view of experience such that mindless pleasure is somehow opposed to mindfulness and complex thought. That is, if you attend to them carefully, the concrete experiences of food, drink, sex, and TV show an intertwining of what can later be abstracted as purely hedonic states and purely intellectual states. If you pay attention to your experience at your next meal, for instance, you’ll find the tastes evoke memories and anticipations, desires to replicate or avoid the experience, judgments as to the quality of the preparation of the food, and the joy or pain of being in the company of your meal partners, and so on.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

I can also work on an integral while I eat a donut. Does the mere co-occurrence of thoughts about mathematics make the pleasure of eating the donut an intellectual one? This seems confused. I guess the claim is that these pleasures should spark distinctive thoughts and memories. But I’m not sure whether the proper way to eat spaghetti requires thoughts about DaVinci and Raphael. In fact, I think the proper way to experience food is to be in the moment and focus on the taste of the food. Similarly, a fairly dumb TV program can bore me, which will in turn cause me to think of something interesting while I half-heartedly pay attention. Does this make my experience of the dumb TV program an intellectual one? I guses you could say that. But not in a way that vindicates the TV program itself. If you’re thinking about some past memory or about the general nature of human relationships *during* sex, then you’re definitely doing it wrong.Report

Ghost
Ghost
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

Ewe. Gross, Wallace. Gross, Protevi.Report

Nick Byrd
5 years ago

I wonder if people know of evidence (anecdotal or otherwise) of instructors being summarily dismissed for talking about “declining” — if not, low — standards of academic achievement at their institutions. The author claims that this is a real worry.Report

Nick Byrd
Reply to  Nick Byrd
5 years ago

I’d also be curious to know if there is evidence of being pressured to give better-than-deserved grades and if people have been “summarily dismissed” for (what the author seems to think is) justified failing grades. On the one hand, people seem to widely accept that grade inflation is a thing, but the author’s claim is that the mechanism of this is too down pressure from the university.Report

Nick Byrd
Reply to  Nick Byrd
5 years ago

*top downReport

Nick Byrd
Reply to  Nick Byrd
5 years ago

The fact that people have contacted me privately to answer this question as opposed to publicly (in these comments) is telling.Report

Eddy Nahmias
5 years ago

Yeah, that article was crap and the writer a whiner. Our students come in a wide variety of interests and abilities and our job is to make them a bit better and at least a bit more interested. I’ll tell you one way my large public state university (GSU) students are not like me: most of them take 5 classes while working 10-40 hours per week, as opposed to my no-job (except in summer) 4 class schedule with time to read and have fun on the side. And most of them will do the readings and come to class, at least if they are given a bit of incentive to do so, both negative (some grades depend on it) and positive (make the readings and classes interesting!)Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

It would be easy to focus on the author’s mistakes yet he makes points that seem worthy of some thought. I wonder how much of this is to with the university, however, and how much to do with pre-university education. From primary school onwards education has become instrumental and vocational in spirit. Even the author’s own example citing pay-rates for graduates perpetuates this attitude. It would not be surprising if the universities had problems overcoming the ingrained attitudes of its new students, who long ago learned that playing the system is the name of the game for teacher and student alike. League tables and performance measures are the thing, and the high school pupils I have known can usually see this very clearly. It breeds an attitude that must be very difficult to overcome.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  PeterJ
5 years ago

Indeed. The OP is full of faults that we can have fun pointing out, but it would be more productive to ask if there are any valuable points being made. University educations are increasingly seen as vocational choices (party due to the awful debt our students are piling up). We need to adapt to this in a way that is realistic and sympathetic towards our students, but also aims to educate them in philosophy.Report

Tim O'Keefe
5 years ago

Also , the level of student debt–which cannot be discharged via bankruptcy–is way higher than when most of us were undergrads. And job prospects aren’t looking great. So I’d be cautious about sneering at ‘careerist’ students who approach their studies as having largely an instrumental value. It’s a lot easier to glory in the intrinsic value of the life of the mind when you’re financially secure.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
5 years ago

It takes a special lack of self-reflection for academics to chide students for being career focused all while we select our students, our schedule, and our general subject matter according to the dictates given by our employers.Report

D.C.
D.C.
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
5 years ago

The modern American academic may be quite literally the last group on the planet who can criticize careerism.Report

D.C.
D.C.
Reply to  D.C.
5 years ago

As a signal of intellectual decline I have messed up the tenses:

Modern American academics may be quite literally the last people on the planet who can criticize careerism.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
5 years ago

It’s worth noting that many of these same points apply to declinist narratives about philosophy.

For example: “the description that matches some people of any era but is pitched as applying just to today’s [philosophers]”Report

Ben
Ben
5 years ago

I do think there is some evidence of decline. Grade inflation, for example, is a very real phenomenon. Piss poor work can get you a B in a modern American university.

There is also evidence from the SAT that the quality of new college students today is much lower than it used to be. The average SAT score of students has been decreasing for the past decade, and — going back further — SAT scores decreased so much in the 1970s and 1980s that the test was “recentered” in 1995 (basically, 100 points was added to everyone’s score).Report

M.S.
M.S.
5 years ago

I think you are describing a verb: Kimball.

To kimball, v. (orig. Roger Kimball, The New Criterion). To bemoan, usually in a tone of high dudgeon, the alleged deliquescence of an imagined prior golden age of scholarship and academic discourse, using poorly researched and loosely considered anecdotes, typically proffered as a means of foreshadowing the decline of the West, or something.

Usage: “I made the mistake of asking Quentin how his course was going, and he kimballed on and on about kids these days, until I finally made my excuses and took my leave.”Report

iGhostFiveOnit
iGhostFiveOnit
Reply to  M.S.
5 years ago

That word wasn’t in my GRE flashcard pack.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
5 years ago

I suppose the point about “data” (#2) is my favorite. I mean, the author’s entire argument depends on an increase in extrinsically motivated students. Yet his data shows nothing of the sort. In fact, it shows the opposite: that the percentage of extrinsically motivated students has been flat since 2007. That’s 9 years of no change.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
5 years ago

I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with our students that hasn’t been wrong with students for a few centuries at least. I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon for students to be concerned primarily with getting a degree and thinking that degree exists for the purpose of getting a job. What I do see, and there may be a lot of perspective bias here, is that administrators seem to be increasingly pushing precisely this idea, which makes the job of trying to champion non-instrumental values of education in addition to the instrumental ones very difficult, especially for people outside of the tenure track. I see a trend today toward dismissing courses and programmes that aren’t seen as money-makers or resulting in employment or vocational skills (such as, just to pick one random example, philosophy) on the part of higher education managers. I wonder if this is part of a cycle, rather than something new, but I have zero evidence to answer that question.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
Reply to  Will Behun
5 years ago

Sorry for the split infinitive. 🙁Report

Joe
Joe
5 years ago

Agreed. Let us instead listen to the wisdom of a much more thoughtful Prince Edward Islander:

“Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive–it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it?”

– Anne ShirleyReport

Sarah Honeychurch
Sarah Honeychurch
5 years ago

We’e been annotating Srigley’s article: https://via.hypothes.is/http://thewalrus.ca/pass-fail/Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
5 years ago

Glad I am retired!!!Report

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
5 years ago

Justin — I agree very much with the first paragraph; it makes a point that declinists (fwiw, like me) ought to keep in mind. I have some quibbles about the rest of your criticisms, but I’d rather engage with you on some broader points. First, is it your view that declinist narratives, even those that really do *explain* current problems, are unnecessary or even irrelevant to addressing those problems? Or is it just unexplanatory narratives of this sort that you think we could do without? For that matter, are there any narratives that you’d consider both declinist and explanatory? Second, you criticize the author at a couple of places for not relying on “data”. It seems to me that this criticism, as stated, cuts very little ice. I think data-driven social science is incredibly useful, but I also think we can learn a lot from wise, sensitive, brilliant, historically-aware Great Ones — a Nietzsche, say, or an Arendt — reflecting on the hidden forces driving current events without availing themselves of (what I think you mean by) “data”. Now, maybe the author isn’t at the level of FN or HA; that’s not the point. The point is that reliance on data isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of social inquiry.Report

GhostWriteTheQuip
GhostWriteTheQuip
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

‘Diverse’ can’t be applied to a singular term unless that term denotes a class. Unless someone wants to make the case for thinking that ‘phenomenon’ denotes a class, you should have written “diverse phenomena”.

Back to plough with you, Weinberg!

(Please post this because it’s funny)Report

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

Justin — I think maybe you’re reading “narratives of decline” de dicto, and I’m reading it de re — i.e. narratives of X, Y, and Z, where, as it happens X, Y, and Z are manifestations of decline. I think I agree you that narratives of decline as you’re understanding them have an appeal, due to their sexy misanthropy, that outstrips their explanatory usefulness. That said, I think we might also disagree about whether “de re” narratives of decline tend to be explanatorily useful.

As for the “data” stuff — I may be overreacting to your post, since the claims for which you say the author requires data do, indeed, seem to require it. My overreaction is, I think, due to the much less appropriate, and much more grating, use of the same rhetorical trope by others. (E.g. This Slate piece by Daniel Engber, criticizing a NYT “Stone” column by Justin McBrayer, really got my goat: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2015/03/does_common_core_teach_children_to_be_immoral_as_justin_mcbrayer_says_meta.html). On the Great Old Ones: Yeah, I mean I guess I just think much of our knowledge of how social systems work is, as it were, “insider knowledge” — e.g. the kind of knowledge that a teenager has of their school’s social ecology, that advertisers would pay gazillions to mainline. What makes the GOO’s great is that they have the tools of head and heart required to articulate that insider knowledge without much distortion. How do we judge that it’s “without much distortion”? Because the rest of us insiders read at their articulations and, from an engaged frame of mind, say, “Yes, yes, yes, they *nailed* it.” Anyway, much more to the story, but that’s my 2 cents for now.Report

jake
jake
5 years ago

Yes, stupid people that don’t give a fork remain the majorityReport

Mike McMahon
Mike McMahon
5 years ago

Is it ironic that in response to an article detailing that students these days withdraw from the the effort to create meaningful bodies of work, the author of this article has simply cut and pasted the original article in order to make his point.Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
Reply to  Mike McMahon
5 years ago

Mike, the comments preceding the italics under each numbered point in the OP are Justin’s critical remarks, as are the opening and concluding paragraphs. There’s no simple cutting-and-pasting.Report

Ed
Ed
5 years ago

My problem with Ordinary People is not that they are not reflective about life it is that they are wrong.Report

Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Phoenix, son of Amyntor
5 years ago

While I’ll admit my own tendency towards “declinism” (new word for me!), I am grateful to Justin for his salutary remarks against that point of view.Report