Bashing today's college students is fashionable and fun. Those of us long graduated can justify the sport with news of grade inflation, undergraduate apathy and the lengthening of baccalaureate programs from the traditional four years to Whenever, Dude.
But Rebekah Nathan's My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, now in paperback, notes that many such issues are nothing new, and that others are deeper than mockery can rectify.
"Nathan" is the pseudonym of a fiftysomething anthropology professor who spent her 2002-03 sabbatical enrolled as a student at her own large state university, which she calls "AnyU." (Before the book was first published, in 2005, Nathan was outed as Cathy A. Small, of Northern Arizona University.) Nathan brought to the project the same techniques and rigor she'd used in ethnographic studies in a remote overseas village. Her goal was to understand student behavior she saw as increasingly perplexing.
Nathan's initial impressions are revealing, at least as a glimpse at how her technique lets her tackle a "society" that's nominally ours. (The approach also makes her cluelessness about popular culture feel more disarming than oblivious.) Key example: the gulf between AnyU functionaries and undergrads in how public messages were used. The school's bulletin-board notices emphasized planning, organization and inclusiveness. Meanwhile, the images students stuck to dorm-room doors ... often collages cut from magazines ... advertised spontaneity, hedonism and physical perfection.
But if the students' ideal college life was impossible to achieve, well, so was the school's. Take AnyU's institutional efforts to promote "community," including activities designed to get dormmates socializing and recreating together. Such efforts simply failed. Nathan cites students' material affluence as one explanation: Who needs Movie Night when everybody's got a DVD player? A more intriguing reason surfaced in Nathan's interviews and conversations: Students understand "community" as something that's there to help them when they need it, but which asks little in return ... perks without obligations.
Yet perhaps the biggest factor is what Nathan considers the defining trait of contemporary college life: time management. Students working full-time jobs, whether from economic necessity or to finance creature comforts, simply had no time for community ... not to mention for hardcore studying, let alone mere relaxation.
Nathan's writing is unadorned, and her tone, befitting a social scientist, is neutral. But while she's empathetic enough to have changed her own teaching tactics in response to what she learned as an undergrad, many of her observations are troubling.
Nathan's foreign-born classmates told her that Americans are incurious scholars and poor listeners. She interviewed students who said cheating is justified if you are sure won't ever use the tested material in real life, or are otherwise uninterested in the class. And she found herself among people who'd grown up in a world predicated on gratifying their every consumer impulse, including the provision of endless "options" from a menu of activities on which assigned readings were as optional as keggers.
Nathan's descriptions of students recall social critic Christopher Lasch's 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism. Nathan's observations powerfully echo Lasch's conception of the manipulative, incurious and self-absorbed "narcissistic personality" ... a prescient critique that diagnosed the Me Decade even as it foretold the cynical, materially obsessed culture of the 1980s and beyond.
It's true, Nathan emphasizes, that much of what we decry about modern student life also applied to the university's "classical" phase, dating 50 years ago or more. College enrollment then was effectively limited to the rich. But students still slacked off, partied, played professors for grades and bragged about it all. To state the obvious, academic engagement ranks low among the priorities of most post-adolescents, who fulfill their true desires in whatever ways they can get away with. It's as natural as complaining that the new generation isn't up to snuff.
Yet it's false to say that nothing's changed. Lasch, for instance, noted the continuing commodification of education and the rise of the "multiversity" ... an institution as concerned with real-estate development as with its nominal educative mission. Nathan, meanwhile, notes how government support for universities has plummetted over the past couple decades: Tuition rises, student debt balloons; universities compete harder for students. Pretty soon, as Nathan describes, AnyU spokespeople are telling students benign ways of sucking up to profs, and the school is offering "fun" classes, like a popular one she took in which the main coursework was discussing one's own sexual experiences.
My Freshman Year also raises bigger questions, chiefly: What is college for? Clearly, neither schools nor students pretend it's about creating well-rounded, liberally educated citizens. But because, for most, a degree is merely a requisite step toward a well-paid job, it's fair to ask whether those jobs actually demand four very expensive years of extra schooling.
The poor are told education is the key to success, even as the financial bar to a college degree rises, and a master's degree, in some fields, becomes as mandatory as a bachelor's formerly was. Maybe, at a time when jobs are being automated or outsourced out of existence, corporate America demands a higher hurdle between the average person and a living wage ... and a way to ensure that the pool of potential cashiers and security guards remains adequate. Perhaps another reason we're told college is so important is that colleges are businesses.
In searching for the purposes of the undergrad experience, the strongest case Nathan makes for college is not as education, but rather as rite of passage. Yet why are students who want "college," not college, there at all? Why do we require them to be? These are questions Nathan doesn't ask. But we ought to.