Generation Disengaged

I’ll be curious to see what sort of reaction the article “A Very Long Disengagement” gets from Chronicle readers. Authored by Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, it appeared in the Chronicle Review two weeks ago (1/6/06). Although it tends to generalize, it does base most of its conclusions on reported survey data. Whether it’s comprehension or knowledge of history, the arts, literature, geography or politics, current college students are faring far more poorly than previous generations of students. The author lays the blame for this on the five hours per day typical students spend watching TV or DVDs, playing video games, web surfing, or listening to music. Bauerlein makes the case that students spend far less time on studying and assignments than in the past, and that they show less intellectual curiosity than previous generations. He states that every indicator suggests today’s students are every bit as intelligent, but their knowledge hasn’t kept pace. His reasoning for the change:

“…because of the new leisure habits of teens and young adults…the more time young adults devote to activities like sending e-mail messages, the less time they devote to books, the arts, politics, and their studies.”

And of libraries he observes:

“Walk through any university library, and at each computer station you will see a cheery or intent sophomore pounding out e-mail messages…Head up to the stacks and the aisles are as a quite as a morgue.”

Case in point about the generalizations. Certainly students are always checking e-mail or IMing, but that’s how they operate. It need not mean they are just taking up space. And the “empty stacks” imagery doesn’t describe my library. How about yours?

But from my perspective the most salient passage is his critique of higher education:

“All too eagerly, colleges augment the trend, handing out iPods and dignifying video games like Grand Theft Auto as worthy of study.”

I would argue that it is incumbent upon college and university faculty (with administrative support) to explore new instructional technologies, and determine how they might enhance teaching and learning through better student activation. But Bauerlein uses his comment to make a point worth considering. As librarians we ask why students prefer the research equivalent of the mass culture that Bauerlein points to as the culprit behind the detached and disengaged student. Why don’t these students embrace our library resources in the same way that Baurerlein wishes they would embrace liberal culture?

Bauerlein never quite provides an answer to that question, and perhaps there is no simple way of explaining it other than to point to societal preferences for the fast, easy, convenient, critical thought-free approach to information gathering. He asks if our efforts to appease students in the name of learning by pandering to their desire for pop distractions ultimately destroys the “middle ground between adolescent life and intellectual life”. Is it possible our academic libraries contribute to the declining knowledge base and intellectual curiosity of our students when in our effort to shield students from complexity we make things far too simple. Do we promote, as Bauerlein calls it, “the prolonged immaturity of our students.”? In the end it may be that Bauerlein’s worries (and my own) are not far off from those in the fifties who attacked rock music as a threat to end cultured society. It may just be a strong reaction to generational changes that will no doubt ultimately become as ingrained into society as rock music is today. But if Bauerlein is right and we are witnessing a true disengagement from intellectual life, isn’t it incumbent upon academic librarians to do more to work with faculty to challenge students and raise expectations for academic rigor.

Extra credit reading: An opinion piece that appeared in the Boston Globe on 1/12/06 by Michael Kryzanek titled “Dumbing Down A College Education” reflects on a recent study about the declining literacy of college students.

5 thoughts on “Generation Disengaged

  1. Could it also be a reflection of their “helicoptor parents” constantly hovering over, making sure that their children are given everything, not giving their children the opportunity to experience life as independent adults–keeping them immature, making them feel that they are the center of the world’s attention? I have on my office door a quote I found recently: It is very common to hear people say here’s the Millennial or the digital generation, and we have to figure out how they learn. Poppycock! We got to mold how they learn. –Naomi Baron I think by sheltering our new generation of college students, parents have done them a huge disservice and we will be paying for their mistakes for at least the next decade.

  2. Perhaps there is a relationship between helicopter parents and their disengaged students. I’m not quite sure how parents being overly involved by dealing with every issue for their son or daughter rather than letting him or her handle it would contribute to a lack of intellectual curiosity. I think the author is more correct when he points to all of the digital distractions that students fine more engaging then their course material. Again, while helicopter parenting is a noticeable trend, I’m sure the vast majority of students have parents who let them handle things for themselves. I think Bauerlein would agree with Baron, but doesn’t this apply more to what faculty are doing in the classroom to try to connect with millennials – and how that leads to less effective learning. I’m not sure I see the parental connection there. Are you suggesting that helicopter parents are putting pressure on faculty to teach to the millennial style of learning or that sheltered students can only learn if faculty conform to their learning styles – rather than the other way around.

  3. Bauerlein does inspire an important question: “Is it possible to live the Life of the Mind on today’s college campus?” Having recently read Tom Wolfe’s “I am Charlotte Simmons,” I am increasingly pessimistic about the prospect of motivated, scholarly students to reach their potential at the undergraduate level. Wolfe’s novel touches upon many of the complex issues that face undergraduates and 2-year college students today.

    Instead of focusing primarily on the infatuation with media and technology, perhaps we should also consider fundamental issues related to class, identity and mobility in the US. At the community college where I work, issues of class and mobility overshadow many students’ potential to engage in focused study.

  4. Amen, Ameet! That goes whether we’re going to say “learn the way we think you should learn” or “we’d better find ways to plug into this new tech-driven lifestyle.”

    One of the odd features of the Millenial Generation typification is that it’s the most diverse group ever. But they all think that … x,y,z. I’m not sure we really are paying attention to their diversity of class, experience, or desires.

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