The other day, my exhausted wife the professor came home from the university, late again, and collapsed into a chair. After sipping some liquid — and not non-alcoholic — refreshment, she asked, “Why can’t they remember anything? Why can’t they remember to open their mouths?” Now… my wife is a professor of voice and opera, and she teaches singers. One of the very basic rules behind singing is very simple: open your your mouth. It’s difficult to project sound with your mouth closed or barely open, especially if you’re trying to sing opera.
It’s a basic, very fundamental, point. And it’s not just my wife. Last week, I heard another voice instructor complaining about the same thing. So why is it that these young students, who love nothing more than to open their mouths to use their cellphones, won’t do so when they’re supposed to? And this is after months, if not years, of instruction.
Unfortunately, it goes beyond that. A good third of the students in her literature and diction class tend to forget when assignments are due… or ask in class, “When is that due?” Of course, they got a syllabus with all their assignments on the first day of class, and one page even listed the “important dates.” So… not only can they not remember, but apparently many of them can’t read, either, or they can’t remember what they read. My own suspicion is that they can’t remember because they can’t concentrate and weren’t really listening. Or they immediately lost their syllabus.
There’s been much debate over the past year about the problems of so-called multi-tasking and how all tasks are done poorly when people attempt to do more than one at a time. Ask any good voice teacher about it. They can testify to the problem. Most undergraduate students can’t handle remembering words, music, and keeping their mouth open at the same time until they’ve had several years of training… if then. Given this, why, exactly, do we as a society think that these same individuals are able to handle automobiles and cellphones simultaneously?
For several years, I taught writing and literature courses on the college level. I occasionally still do, and I learned early on that a considerable proportion of students don’t truly listen unless threatened with pain, i.e., tests, lowered grades, or embarrassment. Even then, the results are mixed. They all want good grades, and the better jobs that tend to follow higher education, but it’s apparently a real chore to remember the little things that comprise good grammar, such as the fact that adverbs aren’t conjunctions, or that independent clauses can’t be joined just by commas, or that spell-checkers don’t pick out wrong word choices spelled correctly… or that plagiarism has some very nasty consequences.
But they don’t have much trouble remembering idiotic lyrics sung off-key by models pretending to be singers… or the rules and strategies for a dozen video games. And why is it that so many teenagers and young adults, when corrected, immediately say, “I know.” If they know so much, why are so much repetition and reminding required?
And this is the generation that so many pundits have claimed will save the world from the sins of the baby-boomers?