Feb. 16, 2007
This is Reading Week at most universities, a time when undergrads spend nine days doing laundry, rummaging through their parents’ fridges, or hanging around in Florida contributing to Girls Gone Wild – doing anything, in fact, except reading.
If you are the parent of a college-age kid, indulge them. If you are a university student watching ESPN instead of reading another chapter of Introductory Microeconomics, don’t torture yourself with guilt.
For the past five and a half months, students have been hammering away, some doing well, some not. At the same time, they’ve taken a lot of guff from people who claim this generation of university students is illiterate, unskilled in academics, coddled by woolly-headed profs, unprepared for the work world.
It was always thus. If you’re a parent, let me calm your worries: the kids are doing fine. If you’re a student, I say: “don’t worry.”
I work part-time as a teaching assistant for the University of Ottawa. I went to university in 1975, when I was just a kid. I quit to take a newspaper job, finished my BA by correspondence in 1990, got a diploma in public administration in 1994, my Master’s in 2004, and I should finish my Ph.D. in a couple of months.
I’ve been around students through four decades. The students of this generation are as good, or better, than any I’ve seen.
But there are differences.
First, there are so many more university students. Numbers are up despite the gutting of the student loan and grant systems and the doubling, in constant dollars, of tuition fees since the 1970s. People come up with the money because a BA is now the minimum requirement for most white-collar jobs.
Second, students come to university with much firmer plans about what they want to take and how they plan to apply it to their careers. It’s an attitude I don’t agree with. I think young people need to take more risks, travel more, and have a better grasp of the world before they settle into university.
They’re younger. Now that Gr. 13 has finally been done away with, many students are going to university when they’re 17. I think that’s too young, especially for young men, but most adapt during first year.
And the students come to university with better academic skills than they did 30 years ago. Yes, you read it right. Better.
There has always been a top tier of students who could handle any type of assignment and could thrive in any university. They could write bibliographies, essays, book reviews and reports without breaking too much of a sweat.
Then there’s been the great mass of students who struggle with organizing a paper, chasing down sources, and can’t string words together well.
What I’ve seen, the past few years, is a marked increase in the number, and percentage, of students who can, in their first year, write a very good paper, and a greater percentage who have strong basic skills. Despite the huge class sizes, only a few students crash and burn. This is a big improvement over a few years ago.
Students also have far better access to research material, such as computer search engines linked on university library sites that make it easy to hunt down books and journal articles. Those who get into the habit of using these resources tend to do very well.
There’s a seriousness among students that seems to deepen every year. Smoking in classrooms, a common student demand in the 1970s, is long gone, of course. But so, it seems, is the once-common practice of smoking a joint before class, along with mid-week binges and the use of heavy drugs.
If anything, the kids are too serious. If you can’t have fun in college, when will you? The working world is hardly a big party. That’s why I’m in favour of a lost year, what the Aussies call a walk-about. See the country, see America, go overseas, do some volunteer work abroad.
But, this week, put your feet up. Read for pleasure. And, if your kid is down in the basement with a stack of DVDs, don’t worry. The kids are alright.