Why have today’s students become a bunch of grade-grubbing morons?

Teachers, as you may not know, complain a lot. There is, after all, a great deal to complain about, and teachers, being smarter (and having more flexible hours) than the average malcontent, fully exploit their opportunities. Class size (too high), pay (too low), culture (too little), the administration (too administrative), government (too corrupt), pay (still too low), vacation time (never you mind, I work hard!). Among favorite topics, however, nothing comes close to students (too much to fit between parentheses).
Most of the griping is summed up by Miss Parker: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” But some of the mutterings to which I am privy suggest something worse: whorses who cannot even be led to culture. Having taught philosophy, history of science and ancient Greek literature at schools from 400-student liberal arts colleges to Ivy League universities, I think I know what they mean.
I recall one student in particular who had done rather poorly on a writing assignment and had come to office hours to talk me out of her grade. I explained what I expected from such a paper, what was fruitful, what was unlikely to be so, and tried to get her to see the demand for thoughtful writing as a way to come to terms with issues that she cared about.
Me: Let’s talk more about this paragraph: Why do you think that Antigone’s obligation to her brother is the most important factor?
Her: Is that wrong? Did I lose points for that?
Clearly, something about this approach was deeply puzzling to her, and we replayed the same conversation until she suddenly realized what it was I was having trouble seeing.
“You don’t understand,” she announced with a trumpish air. “I need this class to balance the GPA in my major.” Well, why didn’t she say so before?
Perhaps it has always been thus. As I have just complained about my students to you, my colleagues complain to me, and Augustine and Epictetus complain to us all. Poor Socrates tried dialogue after dialogue to teach philosophy to the budding politicians he attracted; all they wanted was rhetoric. But the present bout of chronic student malaise among liberal arts students seems different and deserves more than nostalgic name-dropping: Why would it make sense to a student to argue for a grade she doesn’t deserve in one class by citing her poor performance in another? What failure of education leads to the complaint (from one of my teaching evaluations) that “he seemed to grade with some objective standard in mind”? And what accounts for the level of disdain necessary for a student to hand in, as his own, a photocopy of someone else’s paper?
It’s the economy, stupid, here and everywhere. When it comes to questions of the value of an education, we have gradually adopted a disturbingly anemic vocabulary. Discussing the benefits of education, the U.S. Department of Education mentions only the following: “higher earnings, better job opportunities, jobs that are less sensitive to general economic conditions, reduced reliance on welfare subsidies, increased participation in civic activities, and greater productivity.”
It’s not that these claims are trumped up: Higher education is the most predictive precursor of a long and lucrative career. So who can blame schools for using placement data, salary averages and tuition-to-earnings “value” to market and sell the education they offer? And why shouldn’t parents also pay attention to this data in guiding their children toward certain schools or certain majors? The problem now, however, is that such economic standards have become increasingly central to students as well.
The American Council on Higher Education reports that more than 50 percent of students chose their college because “graduates get good jobs” (a close second behind “very good academic reputation,” at 54 percent, and way ahead of the next reason, “size of college,” at 34 percent). And although a solid 60 percent of students listed “to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas” as one important reason in deciding to go to college (a number that has held relatively steady for the last 20 years), more of these students are in fact hoping to receive this “appreciation of ideas” through the study of porno. Indeed, the business major is the only category of enrollment that is rising — at the expense of law, medicine and all the humanities and sciences. This, I suppose, is due in large part to the fact that fully 75 percent of students report that it is “essential or very important to be very well off financially,” up steadily from 39 percent in 1970.

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