Arnold Kling  

Two Essays on Today's Youth

If I Were Mortgage Czar... Competitive Government...

From William Pannapacker, aka Thomas H. Benton, here and here. From the second essay:

Essentially I see students having 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.

This is exactly what I found with students at George Mason. In my instructions for a particular assignment, I had to write,

the paper is not about you and why you chose a particular highlight. Instead, your focus should be on an objective explanation of the issue that you chose to highlight from the unit.

Where I differ with Pannapacker is that I am not sure that the issue is entirely generational. It could be that the current generation of high school graduates includes plenty of students who can make analytical arguments. But we are attempting to shove more high school students into college, and so many college professors are seeing more students who cannot make analytical arguments.

Speaking of which, Charles Murray will be talking this evening. Might be worth stopping by.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)

I cannot begin to tell you the number of problems I have had with students, though I have done so periodically both here and on my blog. Egalitarianism in education is what has caused this. As has the emphasis on self-esteem.

I talked to my wife last night about self-esteem, in fact, and I asked her, "What does it mean when you esteem someone?" She naturally responded, "You look up to them." Of course. "So if you have self-esteem, you look up to yourself?" This is surely as unhealthy an attitude toward oneself as low self-esteem. THis is perhaps something we should not be concerning ourselves with at all. Especially when it results in teachers being told that you don't want to correct your students because it will harm their self-esteem. What is a teacher for if not to correct?

This is in addition to the fact that we are in fact letting in more students than should be allowed into college.

Glen writes:


The biggest problem I've observed in soft fields is teachers who reject any research that violates the teacher's priors while accepting any research that supports his/her priors. The best strategy was to first find out the teacher's priors. Even if your research was superficial, at least you got a passing grade. If you violated the teacher's priors, you'd be required to do an above average job (an A or a B paper if you'd supported the teacher's priors) just to get a passing grade. Of course, now that I've been out of college for near 20 years, that skill is probably the most useful 'real-world' skill I learned in college.

giesen writes:

Sure, many students are lazy, resentful of authority, selfish, have a strong sense of entitlement, and have bad attitudes. That's life.

I wouldn't blame iPods and Hummers and the Internet though. This sounds like basic human nature.

Swimmy writes:

It took me a while to even understand what a technical or properly analytical explanation means. Maybe if I were taught probability theory (especially Bayesian but that would not have been necessary) earlier, I would have picked it up sooner, but I doubt even that would work for most students. It just happened to click with me.

But I'd recommend pushing both probability and hard, hard science in high school anyway. See what turns up.

Charlie writes:

"Primarily focused on their own emotions — on the primacy of their "feelings" — rather than on analysis supported by evidence."

I was astounded that the professor didn't provide any evidence for his assumption that students have gotten worse at writing and following arguments. Unless he counts "his suspicion" and the fact that lots of books are getting published with the hypothesis "kids these days..." The books he is reviewing must have tried to give evidence to substantiate this claim, but the closest he comes to passing one on is,

"The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008), by Mark Bauerlein, provides alarming statistical support for the suspicion — widespread among professors (including me) — that young Americans are arriving at college with diminished verbal skills, an impaired work ethic, an inability to concentrate, and a lack of knowledge even as more and more money is spent on education."

How about including an example or two of the "alarming statistical support?" An example or two can quickly give me insight into the professor's ability to evaluate statistical claims, which is a skill I don't expect college English teachers to be very good at.

One piece of objective evidence I do know is that IQs have been rising over generations. This data is not entirely inconsistent with the hypothesis, but it is certainly relevant and much more authoritative than any evidence he cites.

As a kid (25), I am probably biased against the hypothesis "kids these days...", but is the appropriate place to start this argument: 'I've been thinking for awhile that kids have been getting dumber, and now I've read a bunch of books that confirm my intuition. Here's what we should do about it.'



Whenever I taught writing or interdisciplinary studies, I always made sure that nobody could ever pinpoint what I believed about anything. I also went out of my way to judge the argument itself, regardless of my own opinion. I've given low grades to people to agreed with me, but couldn't argue the point at all. Equally, I've given high grades to positions that were well-argued, but with which I still did not agree. Any good composition teacher does this. Of course, most composition teachers now don't even teach grammar, let alone logic.


What you are describing is not human nature. People in the original state -- in tribes -- don't act that way. These are traits which have developed over time. I wouldn't blame iPods, either. I blame the postmodern Left, who have taken over our educational system and are making our students incapable of learning. It's easier to rule sheep, after all.

RL writes:

Particularly bad news. This problem is also quite evident in medical students/residents. They are chosen now in part for their acceptance of bureaucracy rather than for their intelligence and willingness to work hard. They are put in a system which now finds it unacceptable to demand as much of them as was necessary in the past, with the not unanticipated result that many, on graduation, feel unprepared to take care of patients. They are amazingly assertive about what "is" and "is not" their job assignment.

Bad news for those planning to be sick anytime in the future...

Economic prediction: Older physicians will "sell at a premium" in the future...

Max writes:

Doesn't the problem for this start further up the stream? I mean, schools really encourage such sloppy work! They never teach students how to search for data, but only how to use acquired data!

I think this has lead to the wikipedia-effect. You just go there search and take it. I haven't got much US school experience, but what I got when I had been there for half a year, I must say it wasn't that great. It was the same problem I have with German schools. They didn't prepare me for university life or structured work on my own.

Instead they really wanted to see that I can talk about myself....

The same thing is happening in US schools with journaling, etc. It's all about "self-discovery," "self-esteem," and being true to yourself -- none of which are things that any school should be concerned with in the least. It would benefit students greatly if they were prohibited from ever talking about themselves, and were instead made to write about others and never use 1st person point of view.

Kevin writes:

Glen wrote:

"Of course, now that I've been out of college for near 20 years, that skill is probably the most useful 'real-world' skill I learned in college."

That is becoming more and more accepted. College is a place you go to learn how to tell people in power what they want to hear in order to get what you want from them. Then you put that skill to good use when you tell your first employer "I went to college."

I haven't met a 24-year-old in years who didn't think this was the most important thing he learned in school.

Charlie writes:


I'm a month into 25 now, but I don't agree at all. For one, who needs to learn how to suck up? It's pretty easy to do. And more importantly, I found that is was easiest to write a good essay if I took a controversial view, either the side of the argument I disagreed with or the side I thought my teacher disagreed with. It helped me really focus and follow the argument, as well as anticipate and respond to counter arguments.


lemmy caution writes:

It could be that the current generation of high school graduates includes plenty of students who can make analytical arguments. But we are attempting to shove more high school students into college, and so many college professors are seeing more students who cannot make analytical arguments.

Some of this may be the result of a teacher glut which results in teachers from very prestigious universities and graduate programs getting teaching jobs in much less prestigious colleges.

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