Dumber Students Or Out Of Touch Academics

Are students getting dumber or are the academics working with them just getting more out of touch with those they teach? That debate has been hanging around for a while and now the noise level is increasing by more than a few decibles. I first wrote about this back in January 2006 when I discussed Mark Bauerlein’s observations about intellectually disengaged students. Even further back than that I published an essay in the Chronicle (2/4/04) called “The Infodiet” in which I pointed to the failings of the library profession’s desire to “googleize” search and retrieval systems, and questioned if our role as library educators wasn’t instead to help students learn effective research methods and critical thinking – and refusing to fall for the “good enough” mentality when it comes to research.

Bauerlein went on to write The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008). This book and others were profiled in an article titled “On Stupidity about several recent books that question the thinking ability of today’s students. The article’s author, Thomas Benton, shares his own observations that point to an increase in ignorance among his students. Just recently Benton published a follow-up essay in which he focuses on strategies that educators can use to help students become more savvy learners and critical thinkers. I was interested to see that among his greatest concerns for this generation of students is their:

difficulty following or making extended analytical arguments. In particular, they tend to use easily obtained, superficial, and unreliable online sources as a way of satisfying minimal requirements for citations rather than seeking more authoritative sources in the library and online. Without much evidence at their disposal, they tend to fall back on their feelings, which are personal and, they think, beyond questioning.

On the other hand, Benton thinks Bauerlein and those who see a generation of stupider students are not exactly correct, and questions if it isn’t the teacher who needs to change. He writes:

I am still suspicious of studies that proclaim the inferiority of the rising generation. We’ve all been the young whippersnappers at some point, frightening our elders, and many of us are, no doubt, destined to become grumpy old nostalgics in turn. As a teacher, I would prefer to think my students are the ones with the most promise; they are attuned to what is happening in the culture, even if they still have much to learn.

In this follow up Benton’s goal is to share ideas on how the current generation of faculty can do a better job of connecting with and teaching the millennial generation. While Benton agrees to an extent with those who say faculty do need to be more in tune with the way their students learn and how it is defined by their digital upbringing, he says that the bottom line is students still have to learn.

I do appreciate that he believes using the library, reading books and doing thoughtful research can help students to be more knowledgeable. He advocates that faculty should be “Getting students into the library and getting real books into their hands” and “Teaching them how to evaluate the credibility of sources: why Wikipedia, though useful, is less reliable than, say, the Dictionary of American Biography.” It would be even better if Benton had urged faculty to collaborate with their librarian colleagues to help students learn these skills, but I’m hopeful that just having faculty read this advice will encourage them to seek out librarians who can help them to help their students become better researchers, readers and writers.

If you are interested in this issue and would like an opportunity to engage in a conversation about it with your colleagues you may want to join in a free webcast event I’ll be co-hosting with my colleague John Shank at the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community on Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 3:00 pm EST. I’m pleased that Mark Herring, Dean of Library Services at Winthrop University, will be our guest to lead the discussion. He has written some excellent essays and a book related to the topic. Here is a description of the webcast “Dumbest Younger Generation or Clueless Older Educators: What Librarians Can Do To Promote Student Excellence” :

A wave of books and articles, including Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, are calling attention to the declining analytical skills of college students. They read far less. They seem incapable of critical thought and debate. They take the research path of least resistance. And perhaps worst of all, they seem above constructive criticism. Is digital technology at the root of the dumber generation or is technology simply a convenient scapegoat? Some technology advocates, such as Marc Prensky, suggest that the students are fine, and that the educators are the ones who need to change their ways. Join your colleagues for a discussion of these issues at the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community on Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 3:00 pm eastern time. We will be joined by Mark Herring who will frame the issues and share his thoughts about why librarians should be concerned about them – and what we can do to make a difference.

If you are already a member of the community go here to register. If not, go here to join – and then register. I hope you will join in the conversation.

4 thoughts on “Dumber Students Or Out Of Touch Academics”

  1. “Thomas Benton”, listed as the author of the articles in the Chronicle, is the pen name of William Pannapacker. Many of the Chronicle Careers op-ed writers use pen names for anonymity, but Pannapacker is one of the few who uses a pen name and provides his real name at the end of the article. That said, I found his follow-up article to be one of the best I have read in the Chronicle regarding how to engage students.

  2. Funny, I just saw a copy of Bauerlein’s book at my library and have been doing a little internet searching for reviews. This topic intrigues me since I’m a librarian who happens to fall within the “dumb generation” age range. I’ve encountered my share of unengaged students and uninterested academics, and while it’s easy to write both groups off, I see potential for younger and newly minted librarians to engage both sides. Of course, how to go about it is something I’m not entirely sure of. I’ll have to make time for the webcast — I’m interested in hearing different perspectives.

  3. I really do not think that students are “dumber”. I believe what is being seen now is a result in the way teachers are now teaching. I think part of this is impacted by the general teaching population. Few teachers are making it past the 5-year benchmark. As a result, the general age of the teaching staff is becoming more skewed and the generation gap between teaching and students is widening. Teachers need to be educating themselves in the values, interests and needs of their students and better addressing these needs within the context of state and federal education expectations. By accessing the knowledge and assistance of their LMS, educators can improve the quality and effectiveness of their instruction.

  4. With a title like “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30” is it really a question as to whether that author might be out of touch? Perhaps that sensationalist/cheeky title was written to sell books, but insulting the audience you’re trying to capture sure seems like a first step in the wrong direction. And to someone under 25 with a normally well adjusted sense of humor, this title frankly pisses me off, and it angers me further that someone would call us the “dumbest generation” and then have the gall to say we “seem above *constructive* criticism [emphasis mine].” As a web designer I’m used to taking critical feedback, and I actually feel like I’m very good at it. However, this “dumbest generation” type of criticism isn’t constructive, it’s derisive and insulting, and we have a right to rebuke it. Can we please frame this conversation in a civil manner that doesn’t immediately pit my generation against yours?

    No offense, but a webcast entitled “Dumbest Younger Generation or Clueless Older Educators” seems to really miss the point, and immediately creates a false dichotomy rather than getting down to the nitty gritty of what’s happening — an extremely interesting and complex social trend that needs to be informed from a number of vantage points: sociologically, historically, neuroscientifically, technologically, economically, etc. Then with that information, we need to come together with a consensus and develop a plan on how to combat the specific issues. I also personally feel there is an overemphasis on technology, and while I’m not going to play tech-cheerleader, I do think we need to broaden the discussion to fully understand what’s happening here.

    This conversation should be about how to bring about more critical thinking, cultural appreciation, love of the arts, quiet reflection, and cooperative educational environments. It shouldn’t be a blame game.

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