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Twilight of the Professors: At Some Schools, Bashing the Students Has Become a Cottage Industry

Anders Hove

Whenever you pick up a magazine these days it seems some professor is whining about his or her students. Students, a typical essay extols, are intellectually lazy, bored, or unwilling to make moral judgments. Undergraduates, they say, have messed-up life goals, and don't respond to any teaching style short of vaudeville.

The latest screed in this vein emanates from Harper's Magazine. Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia whose main problem seems to be that his students are just too darn civil: "There's little fire, little passion to be found," Edmundson writes. "Strong emotional display is forbidden." Edmundson goes on to discover that students exhibit this unemotional attitude because they believe education to be just another product to purchase. Predictably, Edmundson's anecdotal evidence turns out to be just another crudely disguised attempt at bashing the undergrads.

The Chronicle of Higher Education chose a different tack when it turned out to critique undergraduate mores in its June 27 issue. Both authors (Kay Haugaard, instructor of creative writing at Pasadena City College, and Robert L. Simon, professor of philosophy at Hamilton College) focus narrowly on students' alleged inability to make moral judgments. Both give anecdotes that demonstrate inability to accept any ethical standard (their students fail to condemn human sacrifice or the Nazi holocaust), and these stories are certainly compelling. The authors put it down to political correctness combined with intellectual laziness: "Rather than think through a problem to a reasoned conclusion, students can throw up their hands and ask, ŒWell, who's to say, anyway?' This conveniently allows them to ignore the moral issues that arise on their own campuses."

Another common complaint is student apathy. "I'm seeing my students' attention spans wane and their ability to reason for themselves decline," David Rothenberg writes in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Rothenberg, a professor of philosophy, assigns the blame to word processors, Web searches, and spell-checkers. Reading Rothenberg's overblown praise of old-fashioned term paper research, one can almost hear the old fart cackle, "Back in the dayŠ"

Most readers my age will probably dismiss the criticisms of the esteemed professors as the simple products of middle age. Most Harper's subscribers, for example, probably hail from the forty-something generation. One can safely assume that there's nothing they enjoy more than comparing themselves to Kids Today.

No doubt about it, students have changed a great deal since the current slate of elders passed through the halls of academia. In spite of their condemnation, professorial types fall far short of offering any satisfying explanation for the change that has occurred. Furthermore, if there were an academic field of criticizing undergraduates, then its members remain blithely unaware of its existing literature.

Take the following quotation as an example: "An undergraduate often hesitates to accept moral and spiritual commitments that seem to him to limit his free-wheeling maneuverabilityŠ I know something of [this instinct's] perverse possibilities as a subterfuge for an unwillingness to examine, and as a form of chronic immaturity." This criticism of the undergraduate inability to make critical moral judgments comes from an article written for The Atlantic Monthly by Professor John Dickey of Dartmouth University. Although Dickey echoes many current critiques of today's undergrads, his article was published in the dusty year of 1955. Dickey's explanation of the problems identified in the contemporary undergraduate? "Today's freshman was only seven at the end of World War II and he was too young for Korea. He brings to college a very dim and impersonal notion of death." Without war, Dickey concludes, students find it impossible to develop humility, compassion, or the general ability to grapple with systems of norms.

Alas, even the venerable Dickey took no account of previous scholarship. In 1910, Edward O. Sisson fot in some jabs of his own. It seems students' intellectual ability was on the wane then too; as always, the students' inability to form moral or ethical judgments appeared to derive from contemporary society. Back in the day, "the ears of the youth were at least accustomed to the words of Holy Writ and the voice of prayer, and the serious counsel and admonition of their elders."

Our elders need to take a look in the mirror: What's comic about this whole situation is that the belief in moral and intellectual decay pervades each succeeding generation of professors. Learned intellectuals though they may claim to be, however, the profs systematically ignore their bias as observers. This bias becomes humorously apparent when viewed through the lens of their parents' and grandparents' judgments upon them.

Professorial criticism is self-perpetuating, much like other social ills. When the abuse starts, those on the receiving end are essentially denied the chance to respond in kind. By the time the erstwhile undergrads grow up, they've internalized the profs' barbs. They fulfill their destiny by pouring forth invective against their own students, setting the psychological wheel in motion for a new generation.

It's time for the faculty to get help. Our contemporary profs should recognize that in condemning the decline moral values and Web-referenced research papers, they are only reenacting their own generation's abuse.