I baffle my students – and the feeling is mutual

They are full of self-esteem and love social media yet crave high grades and safe spaces. What to make of today’s students? asks Felipe Fernández-Armesto

April 25, 2019
Illustration of a professor looking inside a student's head
Source: David Humphries

Sometimes I blame myself. “Old”, screams my inner imp, “and out of touch!” The zeitgeist spooks me. I spend my life trying to penetrate alien eras but cannot understand my own.

Tenure protects me from dismissal, except for senility or gross turpitude: at my age, it is easy to see which is more likely. As teachers get older, chasms of incommensurability separate us from students. I baffle mine with jokes I stole long ago from Bob Hope and his rivals (one about Marilyn Monroe and Adlai Stevenson is peculiarly unsuccessful). Here, in return, are oddities with which some students baffle me:

They hate to be told they’re wrong

In senectitude, I have few pleasures to anticipate save that of changing my mind. Revelation is rejuvenating. An error corrected is like a tumour removed. Yet the young recoil from reproof. They behold with detachment my outrage at a misplaced comma, a dangling participle or an ambiguous relative term. Yet they weep to hear of fallacies and falsehoods. “It’s a good piece,” I have to say, “but doesn’t do you justice,” when what I mean is, “You’re wrong.” Instead of “Literal nonsense!” I say assuagingly, “It needs reformulation.” Students use even sillier euphemisms and evasions among themselves. “I’m uncomfortable with that” means, “I’m outraged and repelled.” “That’s inappropriate” means it’s vile and revolting.

They value high grades

God knows why. Grade inflation has made high grades worthless while glossing low ones with the gleam of rarity. Rather than trying to do their best, some students waste effort calibrating the lowest mark required to protect their GPA or their chances of employment or whatever other dreary objective they target above perfection. “What grade did I get?” they ask. “Is your work perfect?” I reply.

They abound in self-esteem

To think ill of yourself is, to someone of my generation, the obvious starting point for self-improvement. But the young I teach have been brought up with the values of an advertising campaign for L’Oréal. Complacency cripples them. I have to struggle to get students to practise self-editing because they have no experience of self-scrutiny. If you are fed on demand as a baby, spoiled by parental deference in childhood and flattered by grade inflation in adolescence, you will, I suppose, be too satiated to prepare your tests rigorously or check your prose ruthlessly. But I still find narcissism a surprising recourse, even for a student as lovely as Narcissus.

They demand safe spaces

Danger is fun. Safety is repressive. Mollycoddling at home or in school understandably drives students to dangerous sports, reckless addictions or terrorist adventures. I don’t want to booby-trap the buttery or strew the stairs with banana skins, or even topple statues of dead white males in the hope of causing more than psychic discomfort to passing students, but I do want intellectual hazards to be normal parts of university life. Offence that challenges orthodoxy is educational. Disagreement is the foundation of progress in ideas. Mixing opinions is as important as mixing classes, races, sexes and disciplines. Vive la différence! Engage with the enemy if you want to worst him. Don’t flatter his importance by denying him a platform.

They are prudish and judgemental

I grew up when promiscuity, like economic planning, went too far, but there was, I seem to recall, a moment of equilibrium, when freedom coexisted with regulation, and chastity survived alongside consensual sex in near-equality of honour. Now my students typically want to outlaw seduction as if it were rape, deprive courtesans of their livelihoods, deny pornography addicts their fix, condemn indiscretions and persecute peccadilloes without so much as a statute of limitation. The presumption of innocence does not apply to offences against students’ resurgent puritanism.

They like noise

I suppose increasing deafness should inure me, but I can’t see the point of a social environment cranked to so many decibels above brain damage-level that conversation is not worth trying. Noise, I guess, is the most effective form of censorship: to silence dissent, out-blast utterance. To inhibit me from critical thinking, turn up the volume until “I can’t hear myself think”.

They participate in social media

As a technophobic fogey, I find this oddity the most perplexing of all. If I suppose – as I rarely do – that someone may want my news, I will write to him or her, targeting what I say specifically to my correspondent’s interest. I do not burden the ether with my utterances. I am not so stupid as to blog or tweet – which is to court trolls, invite obloquy and waste work without penance or pay.

They believe what they are told

In my generation, parents routinely lied to us, to protect us from an unpalatably evil world, or suppress the facts about criminals or deviants in the family, or mislead us into accepting bedtime or saying our prayers. In consequence, we oldies are proof against advertisers’ lies and politicians’ rhetoric. Today’s students were reared by alarmingly truthful parents. In consequence, they’re suckers. They crib from the web. They huddle in cyber-ghettos, pointlessly exchanging approval with the like-minded. They succumb to fake news and modish orthodoxy. Deplorably, sometimes, they believe even me. “What is” – to paraphrase Lionel Bart – “the matter with kids today?”

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is William P. Reynolds professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.


Print headline: Incomprehensible youth

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Reader's comments (4)

You missed something off your list: "They always report faculty members who offend them to university administrators, who always cave in to their demands for dismissal".
" I do not burden the ether with my utterances. I am not so stupid as to blog". Hmm!
Even though the genre of "teacher complains about today's young" is as old as Western culture I see little value in THE indulging in it. My students are nothing like this caricature. The author's attitude is appalling.
Long past time you retired him. Sexist buffoon. Every time you publish him I know that you want me to be irate. Now I'm just bored.