Students Today: Are They Dumb or Just Disgusted?

Julie Ann Kessler

April 1, 1998

This January, on the heels of UCLA’s annual nationwide survey of college freshmen, commentators baptized in the pools of "elite opinion" concluded that the 1997-98 class of freshmen is the most politically inept group in a generation. Today’s students were condemned for their responses to a battery of questions purporting to measure student attitudes on everything from smoking to participation in something loosely defined as "community action programs." But are today’s students justly decried as political dolts? And what is it, exactly, about this survey that has put their professors and the media alike, into an indignant panic?

In brief, student responses indicated growing skepticism of the utility of "keeping up to date with political affairs" and the importance of "becoming involved in programs to clean up the environment," "helping to promote racial understanding," and "influencing social values by participating in community action programs." Conversely, students reflected shrinking levels of support for abortion, homosexual marriage, and affirmative action.

According to the survey’s director, UCLA education Professor Alexander Astin, "These trends are part of a larger pattern of disengagement of the American people from political and civic life in general."

Really? As a relatively recent college graduate and now a junior faculty member, might I suggest that the good professor start looking a little closer to home for an explanation? Are today’s students reflecting a societal retreat from "politics" per se , or is it possible that, after more than two decades of increasingly illogical indoctrination in the touchy-feely nonsense that so enthralled their parents and professors, this generation is finally putting down its proverbial foot? And, is it possible that, after so much political talk about overcoming every imaginable prejudice, today’s college students have developed a new one: a prejudice against politics as it is understood by their elders?

Campus Fads and Campus Failings

When I graduated from college in 1992, the themes of political correctness, environmental protection, and multiculturalism had hit their peak. This is confirmed by the 1992 results of Prof. Astin’s UCLA survey. In that survey, students reported an all-time high level of interest in questions of the environment, those ambiguous "community action programs" mentioned above, and "promoting racial understanding." Their societal attitudes were also decidedly more liberal. To be sure, there was an element of resistance on campus (think of all the "alternative" conservative campus newspapers that sprung up a la the Dartmouth Review). As far as I can remember it, however, the majority of students (on my campus and the others with which I was familiar) were ambivalent to these notions. Most of the "activism" was generated by faculty, not students. Multi-cultural festivals, homeless demonstrations and the like were planned by and had the f
ull support of the administration. The Black Student Unions, the Chicano Unions, the Latino Unions, and the Gay/Lesbian Student Alliances dipped into university coffers for both funding and staffing. Professors began to offer courses that preached these ideas. In light of these facts, student support for the "laudable" ideas in Professor Astin’s 1992 survey seems to imply more of a thoughtless acceptance than a serious and mobilized enthusiasm.

Still, why the huge shift in just six years time? As interest in these themes reached its peak on campus, they were just beginning their move into "mainstream" culture. That is to say, they were just beginning to stale. They were acquiring the stench of "respectability." So how long could these attitudes be sustained? How long before the novelty of the protests and the frivolity of the "multicultural" food festivals wore off? How many sets of love beads, lava lamps, and incense burners can a person seek to own before it all becomes rather tiresome? How long before grunge music is replaced by something else and nostalgia for the 60’s is replaced by the resurgence of disco and, apparently, the 80’s? Fads, even intellectual ones, do tend to fade. That said, we should not forget that fads always leave their mark.

A more serious answer, however, might be found in the realization, admitted by even some of the more ardent supporters of political correctness, multiculturalism and strident environmentalism that there is an uncomfortable authoritarian element to these ways of thinking. It is precisely this element that is so striking and so annoying to students who—ironically, because of the fads that influenced their baby-boomer parents and teachers—are not accustomed to structure, authority, or anything that smacks of being "anti-democratic." Such students, after all, are used to thinking of themselves as the one and only source of all moral legitimacy. They had been schooled again and again to be wary of any idea that professed to be "true." In other words, what "educators" and other enthusiastic supporters of these movements on campus failed to realize is that they were demanding moral and political certitudes of students whom their generation had taught to avoid
such certitudes!

The "education" of the so-called "Generation X" has been nothing short of a parade of assurances that all "truths" were in the eye of the beholder (i.e., that there is none); that because of the imprecision that results from this brand of nihilism, one must avoid passing judgment on the "truths" of others, no matter how bizarre they seem; that because one must not "judge," one must strive, instead, not to "offend"; and while we were taught to create and assert our own "truths" we were, on the other hand, taught to avoid any confrontation that might offend our "truths" (e.g., a prayer said at a graduation ceremony or in the classroom) as that might stifle our "creativity" (the only remaining and uncontested higher good). We learned that last lesson especially well and, in a way, that speaks to our genius. For this last thing is a very complicated and nuanced lesson. It goes something like this:
if you are a member of a "discrete and insular minority" you are permitted to assert your "truths" all over the place. If you are not, you are compelled to nod your head in enthusiastic submission. In the end, however, our relativism/nihilism has carried the day. We were united in our ability to avoid argumentation and debate. Argument was avoided, but only because one side was taught that arguing against the demands of minority interest groups was tantamount to oppression. The other side, therefore, was freed from the necessity of engaging in argument. So we learned early on that conflict (and with it: argument, reason, discussion and persuasion) is really rather boring because no one may justly challenge you and you cannot justly fight back. Of course, fighting back was out of the question anyway, as we had neither the intellectual equipment nor the will to fight. (It should be remembered, however, that even a nice dog will bite when it is cornered.)

So when "Generation X" went to college, it is not surprising that so many retreated to the less "academic" subjects and sought, instead, some sort of professional training. After all, what use is there in reading Aristotle or the American Founders if you cannot learn anything of enduring worth from them? Moreover, we were taught to assume that these thinkers were profoundly limited (if not outright evil) because of their bigotry and the backward times in which they lived. Most often, awareness of such things (for awareness has replaced knowledge) is just intellectual decoration, used by some of the more savvy among us as a punch card to their membership in the intellectual "elite." The professional training that the majority of my peers endured, on the other hand, may have been boring but it had the virtue, at least, of being "practical" and "relevant." It was a certain thing to cling to in an uncertain world. Still, it was boring.
And, ironically, this training to which many retreated (ostensibly to avoid the conflict that might stifle creativity) was the very antithesis of everything that is uplifting, interesting, and sublime. Is it any wonder that young people forced into this kind of intellectual basement might yearn for something, anything other than this experience?

To be sure, by happy accidents (like meeting a teacher out of step with his generation), some of us did escape from that basement and find something more meaningful in our educations. One wonders, however, whether these few will be enough to save the rest. If we cannot convince the rest that there is something beyond their individualized and self-created "truths" and the reigning passions of the popular culture, then what will fill their aching void? Professor Astin’s survey surely indicates this much: they are looking for something. And as the lyrics of a popular song inform us, young people are saying: "I want something else . . . to get me through this . . . semi-charmed kind of life." But why is there so much despair?

Starving for Intellectual Stimulation

The question remaining is, did political correctness, strident environmentalism, and multiculturalism lose their sway because they are intellectually inconsistent ideas, or did these theories just become the targets of a new backlash against the "establishment"? Likely it was both. But all these questions of why students lost their interest in politics, of course, beg another. Is it fair to say that lack of interest in political correctness, environmentalism, and multiculturalism equates with a lack of interest in politics? If not, is it really true that today’s students are political dolts?

After a year of teaching American Government 101, I have observed more than 100 college students; most are freshmen. Their level of interest in the course and, subsequently, in American politics as a general thing, is frequently a topic of discussion both in and out of the classroom. I cannot say that I am surprised by what I see and hear. After all, I’m not much older than most of them and we tend to share the similar experiences.

With very few exceptions, students indicate to me early on that their interest in studying American Government extends only so far as the institutional requirement. They tell me that they found high school government classes insufferably boring. "Did you find it difficult?" I usually ask. "No," they reply, "it was pretty easy and I did pretty well, but . . . I don’t know. It’s just not interesting." The boldest among them may even pronounce that government classes "just suck." As you might imagine, this is a powerful prejudice to have to overcome! Fortunately, it is one that I share (most of these classes do "just suck" because most of the teachers are overly concerned with that litany of concerns mentioned above). So at least my students and I have some common ground.

Yet I have decided to devote a large part of my life’s work (and all of the last ten years) to the study and now teaching of politics and government—particularly American politics. Why?

To answer this, I take a cue from the best teacher I ever had (the one still plugging away at the Ashbrook Center) and I tell my students why it is that I love what I do. Why do I love America and the questions that it poses and (yes!) the answers that it gives about the human condition? We read together a short, beautifully-written, and un-hesitatingly admiring essay about Abraham Lincoln’s character as a statesman from Elihu Root. As I talk (and mind you, I am, by no means a master of this speech) I can see that for most of these students it is the first time in a long time that they have heard such talk. In this course, I tell them, we will be asking ourselves questions like: "What does it mean to be a human being?" "What did the Founders mean when they said we were all created equal?" "What are the relationships between liberty, wisdom and consent?" and above all, "What is justice?" Are these questions "interesting"? Are these q
uestions "relevant"? It is near impossible to suggest that they are not.

Recently, a student came to see me during my office hours. She said that she was trying to get caught up after missing a class due to illness, but I could tell that she wanted to ask me another question after we finished going over what she had missed. "What is it?" I asked. "It’s these books we’re reading," she said. (In addition to a regular text-book, used more as a reference than anything else, we’re making our way through the key Federalist essays and they’re reading Thomas G. West’s Vindicating the Founders [Roman and Littlefield, 1997], an overview of the current "scholarship" on the Founding that argues that the Founders were racist, sexist, and elitist. The book offers evidence to the contrary and attempts to understand the Founders as they understood themselves.) "I’ve never had to read such wonderful books for a class before!" her eyes twinkled with excitement as she said this. "This is what I always hoped college would
be like!" she said finally, "And I’m so angry at the way my previous teachers presented American government. If I hadn’t had your class, I might never have known how much I love it!"

Lazy and Self-Loathing

Still, as much as I would like to say that experiences like the one described above are common—they are not. But for a handful, students still tend to muddle along. In one year I have been astounded by the number and variety of excuses for late papers, absences, incomplete assignments, and low test scores. This is, I imagine, not much different from the general pattern of the past. The UCLA survey, however, indicates that "a record high of 36 percent of freshmen report being frequently bored in class during their last year of high school" and that the "percentage of students who overslept and missed class or an appointment’ also breaks records at 34.5 percent." If that is true, again, I am not surprised.

For most of "Generation X" the biggest problem faced is the inclination to be insufferably lazy. While there are flashes of brilliance, in general students don’t work very hard. They do things at the last minute. They would rather not read, even a good book, if they are told that they have to read it. Indeed, they tend to whine when forced to do anything because there is so seldom a background of good working habits. But must "Generation X" carry all the blame? Such character flaws are always the ultimate responsibility of the person or persons owning them. For no one else can correct them. But before "boomers" condemn me as a young punk blaming the problems of my generation on the one that went before (as if they can claim innocence on that score!) consider this: How is it that so many of us share this flaw? Is it possible that it is merely a coincidence?

Now remember: students report being bored in high school classes. Even the best of my students report being amazed at having to read something other than a text-book and doing something other than memorizing terms. If we do not ask much of students, we are not going to get much. Above all, we will not cultivate the habits of hard work, patience, and diligence that will help them later in life. No matter how much fun thinking and learning can be, they are the hard kind of fun. Given the content of today’s curriculum and the quality of most of their teachers, students rarely have the opportunity to know about or enjoy this kind of fun. Yet, even when they are presented with a new vista, there are so many other factors that keep it distant. So even when students are presented with that all too seldom happy accident of a good teacher, it is very difficult to follow his counsel. It is one thing to recognize the direction you must travel and another altogether to muster up the gumption t
o follow that road. Grade inflation, lack of homework, inadequate demands, and above all the suffocating attention given to our "self-esteem"—these have had the ironic effect of making most of us poor students and, the best of us, self-loathing students in a constant tug-o-war with our desire to learn and our inclination to take it easy.


So is the UCLA survey off the mark? Ultimately, yes. "Generation X" is not a lost generation. We are, after all, still very young and we are full of untapped potential. As the example of my good student shows, there is no telling what an intellectual awakening like that can inspire. But we have never been tested with a large-scale and pressing crisis. We have muddled along, instead, under the soft tyranny inspired by the soft-headed, fuzzy and "nice nihilism" imparted to us by the "Baby Boomers." But we would be foolish to think that this fad will last much longer. We would be foolish, also, to suppose that it won’t leave its mark. What happens if the nihilism stays and the "niceness" dissipates? What happens when this generation—with no solid moral grounding—gets angry? Unless we can find a way (soon) to undo what has been done, and ground this generation in something higher than their own needs and wants, there is a serious danger of this s
elf-loathing laziness turning into a hard-hearted and violent form of nihilism—the kind 60s radicals only talked about.

Julie Ann Kessler is an Instructor of Political Science at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California and the Director of Academic Programs at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy in Claremont, California. Miss Kessler is a 1992 graduate of the Ashbrook Scholar program.