More Die of Heartbreak

Boston College Research Professor Peter Gray has a new blogpost on his Pyschology Today blog, titled “Declining Student Resilience, a Serious Problem for Colleges” (22 September 2015). And yes, here we go. Some anecdotes about how the poor little babies can’t solve their own problems—one student wanted counseling because her roommate called her a bitch; a pair of young women called the police because there was a mouse in their apartment. And professors—particularly younger professors—fear giving the students anything less than an A, because they regard that as failure, and can’t deliver the “something like ‘buck up, it’s college’” message, and… And university people are scared that they’ll be held responsible when students commit suicide. And it’s not just the students; the parents have overprotected and the students can’t solve their own problems and we’re a veritable helicopter SOCIETY and…

You’re stopping me because you’ve heard this all before, right?

Funnily enough, the good professor returns to a subject he’s been talking about for decades, namely: schools don’t help, there should be other alternatives, kids need MUCH MORE PLAY to learn properly, etc. etc. OK, thank you. And your bio tells us about all the kinds of play and outdoor recreation you yourself like. Bravo! As Vonnegut’s Bokonon put it, “Nice, nice, very nice; so many people in the same device.” Not that all problems boil down to his pet issue, or anything.

He does try to take the high road and identify “society” as the root cause rather than students, but still it amounts to blaming the students. They can’t solve their own problems, they’re not real adults as college students ought to be, etc.

Now: I’m sure Prof. Gray would pale to find himself lumped with Sean Hannity, the thuggish, moronic Fox News Spewing Head, but Hannity’s “in MY America we didn’t X” and Gray’s Mythology about higher education of the past amount to the same thing: the Golden Age Fallacy. Hannity doesn’t know any better, but Gray ought to.

The head of Counseling at Boston College informs him that “Faculty, particularly young faculty members, feel pressured to accede to student wishes lest they get low teacher ratings from their students. Students email about trivial things and expect prompt replies.

BC is a Jesuit College, private and not cheap. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that triviality is in the eye of the beholder; the student may not think something is trivial—perhaps if s/he is trying to follow directions to the letter, and doesn’t yet have the experience to know what’s important and what isn’t—while the professor resents having to descend from Olympian heights to address such mundanities. As far as mental illness, depression, and suicide—I think it would be far worse to say, “Yeah, I noticed stuff, but didn’t say anything, because, you know, I’m a professor and I’m sorry, it’s not my table” to grieving parents. Prof. Gray complains that schools are expected to be in loco parentis, but since when is that a surprise? The thing about students being expected to be adults is a genial fiction, and always was. When we visited the University of Virginia, in 1992 or so, I remember reading about a commentator of Jefferson’s time, or shortly thereafter, commenting about the “coltish mischief” the young students got into…and they had servants with them, remember, living on that historic quadrangle! All faculty have always known that students are not adults; they are apprentice adults, and need to be held responsible for their decisions and actions…but that is so that they can learn to adult, not because they’ve miraculously arrived at that state on their own. How would that even be possible, for people just emerging from the parental home?

I could go on, but will spare the long-suffering reader. What Prof. Gray offers is yet another litany of complaints about students, society, and everything else that aren’t like they were in the imagined utopia of the early 1960s (when in reality there was far less access to higher education, a far different sociology and economy, far different faculty responsibility, etc.). Do we want to go back there? In my family, the collective memory of American higher education goes back to the 1940s, and I have plenty of anecdotes to back up the idea that it was no golden age back then, either. And today, if students are expected to stand up and take responsibility for all aspects of their academic lives (despite the outlandish costs) by comparison with the idyllic past, why shouldn’t faculty be expected to stand up and say something if they see a student suffering, unable to adjust? And if young faculty are disinclined to provoke bad performance reviews, doesn’t that suggest a real fear that the reviews are being misused by administrators, and that job security is threatened by student complaints? Let’s be honest: in former times, the Gentleman’s C was a reality. You were a rich f—up and, y’know, were awarded Cs—passing grades—because of your birth, caste, and income.  So the risks to faculty were probably somewhat less; problem students would be given passing grades and kicked upstairs.  Today?  No, and I think that’s an improvement.  So, what “student” resilience are we talking about?  Formerly, the frathouse or dorm moms made sure your room was clean; if you behaved in a manner befitting your birth you survived your classes…

Ridiculous. Let me say, flat out: I don’t want to hear how great it used to be, or how much more resilient students were, or how intellectually independent they were—I’ve never bought that line. There were far too many abuses, inconsistencies, and instances of caprice without possibility of redress. Access to higher education is far broader now, and (yes) that means there are cultural adjustments that have to take place, both for those with less experience and for the terrified hothouse-privileged. And yeah, the poor younger professors who have to publish and teach and do research and and and…

Here’s the greater question: why do we so enjoy Schadenfreude-laced essays of the O-Tempora-O-Mores type about higher education, clucking at each shocking revelation ?  Further, why are such essays almost all by either emeriti who safely navigated the rapids or the part-timers who are kept hors de combat, who see only injustice in the whole system—the uninvested, in other words? We feel funding is tragically insufficient, certain politicians and their media sympathizers prefer to repeat the professors-are-just-lazy litany, and everyone clucks like Grandma watching her soap-opera stories. How in heaven’s name have we descending to this? It has been this way for a good long while. What is the attraction in this, for (say) supposedly responsible news outlets like the New York Times?

Why the predictable, rehearsed, theatrical hand-wringing?

Tell you what: “Societal, Parental, Taxpayers’, Administrative, and Faculty Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges and American Society Itself.”  There’s your story, not more gleeful, concern-troll, pounding-on-the-students. I cannot for the life of me fathom how this slop gets past even the most junior editors.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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