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Undergrad Style 1965 vs. Undergrad Style 2019. . .

Wintry 1930s undergraduate style by Louis Hurd.  Hopefully, this young fellow has a clearer picture in mind, than many of his 21st century counterparts seem to, as to why he is pursuing a college degree.

Much in the 1965 Time Magazine article shared again over on Christian Chensvold's Ivy Style sounds very familiar when it comes to what I read on the multitude of academic and social challenges facing first generation and/or minority undergrads (as well as some of the more mollycoddled  and entitled students who are part of Generation Z) during the first few semesters on campus in the second decade of the 21st century.  It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same even in light of the rather  different student demographic now and technological gadgetry with which we festoon ourselves as compared to 50+ years ago.   

Even a less highly selective state school (in the U.S. sense), in contrast to a private or genuine ivy league institution, can be a real bucket of ice-cold water to the face for a lot of young people who might not have a clear picture of why they are in college to begin with and the time/focus/effort required to graduate on time.  Those first few semesters on campus can be a period of considerable, and at times entirely necessary, adjustment.  A point that much of the scholarship on the issue does not seem to mention.  Perhaps conveniently.

We don’t hear the term ‘sink or swim’ much anymore, but that is still very much the case.  You've got to learn to swim with the current, once on campus, yet too many seem to have troubling reconciling themselves to that fact.  Even with the various offices, programs, organizations, advisors, and tutors that have been set up and established most places now, to assist struggling students and provide them with a sense of community and/or belonging.  I fear it is the old discussion of leading a horse to water however.  While a few souls have the good sense to drink, to see the fantastic chance they have been given, to become more, and to embrace their coursework along with any related challenges head on, not enough of their fellow students do.  But this lethargic approach to college-level academics on the part of a sizable number of undergraduates at two- and four-year schools is simply part of a larger problem.

Present company excluded, the prevailing attitude across much of U.S. society now is to turn one's back on education and distrust intellectuals.  And while we have been collectively sold on the idea of a college degree for everyone since at least 1945, basic facts and concepts are now spurned.  Experts in virtually any field are not to be trusted.  An in-depth knowledge about virtually anything is apparently something to be avoided.  And the actual work of becoming educated is seen as both an imposition and an inconvenience by far too many students within, as well as people outside of, the academy.  If we don't agree with or don't appreciate a line of thinking, or the facts and positions staring us in the face are somehow inconvenient to our worldview, the current modus operandi for a substantial portion of the population is to stick our fingers in our ears, bury our heads in the sand, and say it's not really true.  La-la-la-la. . .  I can't hear you.  It is just your opinion and has no bearing on real life.  It's a well-orchestrated ruse perpetrated and perpetuated by the coastal elites.  Fake news!  Let's parade our willful ignorance loudly and proudly instead.

It is within this particular sociopolitical climate that college and university educators must operate.  Sadly.  We must work with the raw material who enter our classrooms each September and January, many of whom are not receptive to the idea of, well, opening their minds to new ways of thinking, new ideas, new concepts, and thinking more critically about all of that.  Many seem almost hostile to the notion of improving themselves via something as quaint as education. The expression on their faces each Day#1 of a new semester, a byproduct of (usually) deep-seated insecurity, says it all.  It seems as though the belligerent air projected by so many of the little darlings almost screams, "If I don't already know about it [at 18, 20, or 22] , then it cannot possibly be worth knowing!  If it's not a gaming, social media, or hook-up app, then it's irrelevant."  

That's something of an overstatement, and to be sure there are quite a few students who don't come across that way, but you take the point I trust.  To express the same general idea differently, too many undergraduates are unwilling to partake in the discussion that comprises so much of education.  To move beyond surface learning toward deeper learning.  To get at the real heart of a particular field, topic, question, or related issue.  Oh, yes.  They've been encouraged to aim for admission to college, many more than ever before attain that lofty goal, and they crowd college and university campuses when classes are in session.  Yet the impression I have after 20+ years of teaching undergrads -- at two and four-year institutions: community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, and larger universities -- is that (too) many of them approach the incredible opportunity that is higher education with an extremely passive, laissez-faire attitude.  At best.  

Far too few of those same young intellects actually seem open to learning, processing, and absorbing new ideas and information about either STEM, The Humanities, or simply the intricacies of life and human existence.  They seem content merely to spin their wheels instead.  Their minds seem already made up, that is closed off.  At 18.  With only rare exception, each course is reduced to a simple box to check off on a grocery list of breadth and depth requirements to satisfy in the countdown to graduation.  Little more thought than that seems to go into it.  How terribly sad.  

A college or university education is a remarkable opportunity.  At whatever level it occurs, from preschool or Kindergarten all the way through to a graduate degree and even post-doctoral work, education is all about a journey toward and being open to the possibility of personal growth, change, and development in one's thinking and personality.  Very often this evolution moves us in a completely unanticipated direction than that we might have imagined for ourselves at the outset.  One has to be prepared for that and willing to take the risk, intellectually speaking.  It's also a good idea to steel oneself with a healthy level of mental agility for when things don't quite work out as they have been so carefully and painstakingly planned right down to the last detail.  Because sometimes, quite often if we're truly honest about it, things don't play out anywhere as neatly as we would like.  The late John Lennon once observed in an interview something along the lines of "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."  And that is true when it comes to a navigating a college or university education as well as what happens after graduation.  

Somewhere along the way, though, society has lost sight of that idea.  Higher education, gradually, has been reduced to little more than job training in the minds of many young people and their parents.  We have apparently done away with the type of open attitude to new things and flexibility I outline above. Instead we have closed the door on a vital part of the picture, the concept of personal growth and change.  Things that ought to occur during time spent on a college or university campus but no longer do, at least not to the degee they should.  A complacent apprehension has instead taken firm hold of our minds.  We have -- and I'm including the now ubiquitous hovering parents who cannot quite let go as part of this observation -- we have got it all worked out at 18.  This is how it's going to be when we graduate at 22 or 23 as well as when we're 40, 50, and 60.  Don't risk changing anything about yourself, or how you think.   Time spent at college or university is to prepare you for a job.  It's a piece of paper that says Brad, Connor, Finnegan, Madison, Bailey, or Lauren attended such and such an institution during a four or five year period.  Nothing more.  How dare anyone suggest that we change anything about ourselves, or open ourselves up to the possibility of progression or greater sophistication that moves us well beyond the people, mindset, outlook, and experience from which we emanate.

As a counter to the tendency exhibited by an awful lot of people, to wallow in this basically inert attitudinal state, I read a lot about motivating undergraduates and facilitating higher levels of student success in an effort to pitch my own courses (tweaked a bit each semester) in such a way that makes it possible for the students in those same courses to do reasonably well.  Besides learning something about not only the core subject matter, I provide an opportunity for students to acquire, practice, and refine a wide variety of real world skills.  Skills that 21st century employers report they need desperately, but observe too little evidence of in late millennial graduates entering the workforce.  

Yet I have a lingering suspicion that we are forgetting an important part of the equation when it comes to the ideal of funneling absolutely everyone into and through the college/university system.  Is it really possible to make a person succeed if he, or she does not join the game, pick up the figurative ball, sprint toward the end zone with it, and put in the time necessary to succeed academically?  Is every high school graduate even, as they used to say, "college material?"  Of course, that opens a whole other can of worms, but consider the following.

If we cut through all of the touchy feely language on college or university websites and in the print materials, it is college and university students who still must (learn to) manage their time more effectively, prioritize, buckle down for those subjects that come less easily, hit the books, and seek help themselves BEFORE a low or failing grade happens.  Professors, lecturers, graduate TA's, and tutors themselves cannot do that for said students, who first must come to the figurative table before any possibility of success can occur.  That is a harsh fact of life that not many people, from college and university administrators at one end of the discussion, all the way to students and their parents at the other, want to acknowledge.  There is something to it nevertheless.  

Think about it for a moment.  At the most basic level, you've got to take responsibility for yourself and your choices.  If students don't put in the necessary time and focused effort (without distractions mind you), or seek help far enough in advance of graded projects, quizzes, or exams, then of course the outcome will probably not be what most undergrads and their parents envision.  Everyone may be considered special in 2019, but you've got to play to win as the nightly Pennsylvania State Lottery segment used to intone at 7pm before The People's Court began.  As I say above, however, this view is not a popular idea to share.  The truth is unsavory for many.

Oh.  And attending classes routinely, for the courses in which students have enrolled each semester, also helps quite a bit when it comes to gaining a more complete grasp on course material, staying on track, and doing reasonably well, what I term "meeting expectations," which does not necessarily equate with an A++ for a final course grade.  What?  Attending classes can actually help students get more from a a course and improve learning outcomes?  Consider this.  The most interesting, notable observations and conclusions, most often made by the students themselves, arise in the classroom during discussion of the requisite course material.  Funny about that.

-- Heinz-Ulrich


  1. This is a great essay Stokes. Perhaps you could post it on the Stollen blog for larger circulation.

    So much of college is learning how to live away from home and to make one's own decisions. Managing time is a big one too (showing up for classes instead of sleeping in; going to the library to study instead of watching television).


  2. Thank you for your kind words, Jim!

    Best Regards,



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