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 Bauerleinâ€™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.