We want them young, not foolish

November 11, 2005

Students with open minds are rewarding to teach, but many first-years border on the infantile, feels Maria Misra

As the new academic year gets into gear I find myself increasingly startled at the extreme youth of the first-year cohort. This may simply be a product of my own advancing years, the academic version of the alarming diminution in the age of policemen noted by the middle-aged.

But it's not just students' appearance that provokes suspicions of immaturity, but the intellectual naivety of some of the newcomers. It seems that many find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the experience of school and university.

The events organised for freshers' week seem more depressingly infantile than ever and one wonders whether many of them are really ready for higher education. Their lack of any real experience of life, despite the now ubiquitous gap year, seems to impede serious engagement with their studies.

Many have acquired a remarkable capacity to compartmentalise, and their academic studies are kept tightly sealed off from "real life". I suspect this has something to do with changes in the school system. Excessive stress on testing and exams has bred a peculiarly detached attitude to subjects such as history, where events as traumatic as the Holocaust or the Partition of India are just intellectual exercises to be mastered.

This odd attitude is probably also the consequence of their lack of experience of the real world. Many seem uninterested in contemporary British politics, not surprisingly perhaps given the trivial soapiness of its presentation in the press. Nor are they much engaged by the events of the wider world. Given this indifference to the present, this generation's difficulties in appreciating the significance of even the most searing events of the past are hardly surprising.

One's late adolescence is also a difficult time. Students, many away from their families for the first time and distracted by the process of social adjustment and establishing adult identities, find their academic studies decidedly less compelling. I certainly didn't make the most of my undergraduate years: switching subjects and cramming study into the narrow interstices left between socialising and gloomily fretting.

One solution to this intellectual and emotional immaturity might be a couple of years of some kind of national voluntary service. After this, even if they gained nothing else, the students would be older, and age, regardless of experience, seems to make a huge difference. Students in their final year are invariably much more interested in their subject for its own sake, more capable of empathy and less prone to self-absorption.

But just as they are becoming most receptive and interesting to teach, they leave.

Then, again, there are disadvantages associated with delaying or prolonging student careers. In Europe, studenthood seems to last for ever, and careers seem to be constantly interrupted as many people don't become fully qualified until they reach their thirties. Moreover, there is something to be said for teaching people with relatively immature minds. As the recruitment advert for teaching suggests, it is invigorating to talk to people who haven't made up their minds about everything.

My most rewarding teaching experiences are when an idea suddenly clicks with a student. This supple openness to the unexpected or counterintuitive may well be the upside of a certain unformed-ness. Doubtless, too, more mature students would be less inclined to put up with my manifold idiosyncrasies. With age comes not just wisdom but stroppiness.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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