It was somewhat of a surprise to find an editorial in a metropolitan paper criticizing higher education institutions for pampering and pandering to what they called the “Catered Generation”. But I found it a pleasant surprise. Anyone dumbfounded by a student whose expectations for personalized service were far beyond the norm will appreciate this editorial. It is sparked by an article in the same paper about the shift in orientation programs from basic college survival skills to, well, survival skills for being on your own (sorry, the article is no longer available online but it appeared in the Boston Globe on July 9, authored by Marcella Bombardieri – I found the full text on ProQuest). Here’s an excerpt:
These warnings for entering college freshmen have popped up at area college orientations during the last couple of years. Officials say that they keep adding new “don’ts” partly because the online world has brought new temptations. But they also say they’ve become more intent on reviewing every conceivable danger because today’s college students, known as the millennial generation because they came of age in the 21st century, have been so coddled by parents that many of them lack basic street smarts.
The editorial encourages higher education institutions to stop babying their students and start treating them like adults. That will require all of us who work in higher education to both raise our level of expectations for students and present them with some academic challenges. While it is important to take notice of changing demographics and user expectations, the editorial suggests that we fail our students when we make things too easy for them for fear that their possible failures may do them irreparable harm. Nor does the argument to stop catering to student whims suggest that good customer relations at all institutional service points should in any way diminish.
I can’t help but feel that this coddling mentality has invaded the academic library’s territory to a certain extent. Is seems our profession has likewise become preoccupied with discovering methods to provide students with the lowest-common denominator research tools and the elimination of anything that might be perceived as too complex for fear that students will – what – complain that libraries are too hard to use. Do we fear that students will abandon our resources for the ones that do coddle them by eliminating the possibility of failure? It’s almost impossible with most search engines, no matter how awful your search is, to get nothing in return. You can’t fail. With a library database if you do a poorly conceived search you will likely retrieve nothing – the equivalent of failure. Heaven forbid we might expect someone to show some resolve and actually think about what they did and try to improve upon it – even if the cause of failure is as minor as a mispelled word. Now if our systems don’t have spellcheck and auto-correction that’s a cause to castigate library resources and those who promote their use.
In defense of this generation of students, this editorial and the orientation programs it remarks upon are likely directed to a segment of our students who do get attention for their juvenile behavior and their parent’s meddling ways. To the contrary we help to educate many self-reliant students who show remarkable potential as researchers and adults. While we should not allow generalizations to influence ourselves to think negatively about our current or incoming students, there is some advice worth comtemplating in the editorial. On the simplicity-complexity spectrum we need to avoid drifting too far towards simplicity in an effort to shelter students from the true complexity of academic research. Encouraging students, with support from our faculty colleagues, to engage with primary research materials or higher-level scholarly works will contribute to the sharpening of their minds and better prepare them for the complexity of their post-college lives. Our responsibility, I think, is to play a part in ensuring our students graduate with street smarts for the information jungle. Allowing our students to always play it safe, satisfy for just good enough, and live in fear of encountering complexity does them no favors.