The Rise of Snowflakes and Teacups

Over the past several months, I took an informal survey of professors at roughly a dozen colleges and universities across the United States, asking about students who entered their respective schools in the last year or so… and what might be their most outstanding characteristic.

So far, the overwhelming majority reported that the incoming class had the highest percentage of what I term “snowflakes” and “teacups” that they’d ever encountered before in their teaching careers. “Snowflakes” are students who melt into a puddle under the heat of academic pressure, while “teacups” are those who shatter under the slightest pressure. They also reported that they’d never heard so many students say, “I’m so stressed out.”

Yet in terms of academic rigor and pressure, today’s colleges don’t come close to requiring what was required academically of students a generation ago, and definitely not close to what was required fifty years ago. In addition, the classwork, homework, and grading are easier at state institutions, and even at prestigious and supposedly more rigorous elite institutions grading has been documented as far easier than in the past.

So why are so many students so “stressed” and so fragile? Fifty years ago, stress made more sense. A student who flunked out might find himself drafted and on his way to fight in Southeast Asia. Not so today. Uncertainty about life? Well… it seems to me that students in the WWII era, the Korean War era, the Cold War era, and the Vietnam era faced far more uncertainty than students today.

The one area that I can see that could be more stressful is that of financial pressure. Higher education costs more, both absolutely and relatively, than it ever has. But that can’t explain it, not by itself, not when many of these “stressed-out” students are on full-tuition scholarships.

Part of the problem, from what I’ve seen, is that an enormous percentage of these students, well over half, cannot write a series of coherent paragraphs, cannot synthesize and summarize information, and cannot draw a conclusion from a body of information. Critical thinking used to be one of the requirements for students in higher education, and all too many of this generation’s students have multiple-choice and Google-it-up mindsets and have never learned true critical thinking or analytical presentation of information.

No wonder so many are stressed out. They’ve never been truly prepared for higher education.

They’ve also been encouraged to think of themselves as “wonderful.” For most, life has come easily, especially compared to past generations, and those others, for which life has not come easily, are often angry and believe that life should come easily… and that they deserve an easier path.

I’m not saying that all students are like this, because there some that are not, but those who are not, who can think, who can and do work hard, and who don’t expect anything to be given to them – they’re becoming rarer and rarer, while the snowflakes and teacups proliferate. And that doesn’t bode well for the United States.

9 thoughts on “The Rise of Snowflakes and Teacups”

  1. Allen Lumbar says:

    From experience I know that scholarships are far from something that relieve stress. At my university, the majority of students who are on some form of scholarship are only on partial scholarship and have to maintain nearly straight A’s to keep them. While the students are very bright, this is the first time they are being forced to keep high grades in order to get themselves through school. In high school and middle school these kids were able to coast on intelligence without work, so they didn’t learn to be able to keep a serious attitude for months and years at a time.
    Now that these students are realizing the dedication they have to maintain, just to pay for part of school, they’re becoming terribly stressed.
    Add to the character building that the students are having to go through, they also often have to hold boring and empty jobs. For some of them, their jobs in college will be the first they ever hold.
    I believe the problem lies with the falling standards and rigor of high schools. Students I’ve met who were in very challenging high schools, worked during the school year during high school, and/or limit their technology use are the least stressed. They also tend to be the ones doing most successfully academically.

    1. There’s a similar situation at my wife’s university, and the results are also similar.

  2. John Prigent says:

    Assuming that these students can graduate, how will they fare in a high-stress working environment?

  3. M. Kilian says:

    Unfortunately I think that you are correct about the current state of education and those undertaking it.

    In Australia it seems we are unfortunately following the same trend in which youths are not being prepared to succeed the rigors of higher education, let alone as adults in the workforce.

  4. Robert says:

    “A student who flunked out might find himself drafted and on his way to fight in Southeast Asia.”

    That kind of stress focuses. Today it’s “you have to do this, no you have to do that, don’t forget this other important thing”. Just graduating doesn’t cut it anymore – you need the right internships, senior research, you need to be in touch with people at the jobs you want to get. And you have to start lining this up way before your senior year.

    YOU COULD DROP OUT AND GET A DECENT JOB as recently as 35 years ago. THAT opporunity severely reduces stress, or at least turns distress into eustress.

    Interview the fricking students, not the inmates running the asylum.

    If that sentence insults you, that’s my intent. Not to insult you per se, but but to make you realize that you’re going about this ass backwards.

    Chronic stress does not make you stronger, it literally makes you weaker. There’s a reason “hell week” in special forces training only lasts a week.

    These students have worked under the buckle for decades knowing that if they don’t cut it in K-12 they won’t make it to college, and if they don’t cut it in college they won’t make it to work, and they’ll literally be out on the street, or back with their parents (who may not be supportive angels), seen as failures, and condemned as failures.

    And through all of this, what kind of advice are they receiving? I’d really like to know, because I bet most of it is contradictory to their individual situations.

    I bet that there was a time when the professoriate was a true subset of the student body in class and in temperament. This is no longer the case. Professors as a class lack insight into what a good deal of students these days are going through, because they cannot bridge the theory-of-mind divide.

    God fucking damnit. There is decades of research on how to better educate, and on what’s needed to prepare students to make the right decisions. And still the enrollment and educational modalities within schools today are structured almost identically to those of half a century or more ago. With more requirements stuffed on top.

    @John Prigent: “how will they fare in a high-stress working environment?”

    In my experience work is far easier. It’s a far less artificial structure than university. Results may vary, though.

    1. Stop making excuses for the students. Every single younger generation since the time of Socrates has said “we’re different” or “the times are different.” They’re not all that different on a basic level from what their parents faced. Technology doesn’t change people; it only enables more of what’s in them and magnifies what they can do… for either good or bad.

      As for talking to the students… I have. To scores of them, if not hundreds… and recently. Young singers today have far more opportunities than singers did a generation ago… and they routinely blow them, because they can’t think and don’t know how to work. And by the way, “just graduating” didn’t cut it either thirty or fifty years ago. Even back then, bright young lawyers got ousted from prestigious law firms after a few years. Although it appears hard for young people today to believe, back then, just having a degree didn’t count for much, either, and there were far fewer choices of potential occupations. Engineers lost jobs because a great many of the companies needing engineers operated in highly cyclical and volatile markets, and this still happens. As for internships giving one a leg up… they didn’t even exist.

      And the idea of getting a decent job if you dropped out of college is a bit of a myth. You could get a routine, boring, often physically demanding job that wore you out young and paid better comparatively than such jobs do today… but that doesn’t strike me as a decent job, just a crummy job that often paid better than more than such underpaid jobs as teachers and nurses.

      Yes, education has to change… and it needs to get away from easy entitlement. I’ve been around long enough to see educational initiatives and studies and curricula come and go… and the vast majority of so-called improvements to the general curriculum haven’t worked out. From what I’ve seen is that where education has improved is in dealing with various forms of special needs.

      1. Robert says:

        Then stop making excuses for the professoriate. They have faculty senates. They have a say. It’s not their money paying to operate the school (unlike elementary school teachers who have to pay out of their own salaries for incidentals).

        If society doesn’t want “teacups”, then they had best make it OKAY to fail without that failure completely altering the course of your life.

        If modern students *need* anything taught to them it’s how to fail, how to fail hard, and still be able to come back. That failure isn’t the end of the world. And unfortunately with the perverse incentives set up by High school, college, graduate school, and workplace admissions, failure is the end of the world.

        “As for internships giving one a leg up… they didn’t even exist.” Exactly one of my points. Internships don’t give people a leg up anymore, just as Post-Docs aren’t for the best and brightest. They are now bare minimum requirements tacked on top of everything that came before.

        The professors are some of the adults in the room. The students are still empowered as children. The adults need to stand up and act as adults instead of blaming the children.

        🙂 “And the idea of getting a decent job if you dropped out of college is a bit of a myth. You could get a routine, boring, often physically demanding job that wore you out young”

        We actually agree on what’s a good job and what’s not, I’m so used to reading conservatives who state such manual labor jobs were decent and good that I’ve accepted the terminology for argument’s sake.

        I’ve had those jobs through my mid-30s. They do indeed suck.

        “and it needs to get away from easy entitlement.”

        “Easy entitlement” will go away by itself if the underlying structure changes. I don’t know, maybe I”m wrong, but I believe this.

        “I’ve been around long enough to see educational initiatives and studies and curricula come and go… and the vast majority of so-called improvements to the general curriculum haven’t worked out. ”

        The curricula aren’t what’s wrong, it’s the entire class and semester based structure itself. Classes should be ancillary to work, not the prerequisite. And learning shouldn’t be arbitrarily divvied up into particular chunks of time which may or may not have any continuity from prior chunks of time. How is it possible to learn if there’s no real work context to learn within? It’s just another Kafkaesque preliminary. Memorize as fast as possible for the tests, then purge as fast as possible so that you can memorize for the next battery of tests next semester.

        1. You’ve got a few misconceptions, Robert. First, I’m no conservative. I am a pragmatist. Second, while there are faculty senates, they’re almost totally powerless. Third, my wife and damned near every professor in her field shell out a great deal of their personal funds for equipment, additional materials, even, upon occasion, aid to students, accompanists, and quite a few other things. So far as I can tell, teachers on all levels, including universities, shell out a great deal out of their own pockets. Also, often highly degreed secondary school teachers make more than most college professors. And if you want to try to make a living as an adjunct professor and starve, be my guest.

          As for learning to fail, that’s one of the lessons the good professors I know try to teach, but it’s hard to overcome years of conditioning.

          The memorization and rote learning has actually, believe it or not, been increased over the years on the primary and secondary level by the reliance on multi-guess tests and increasing testing. For what it’s worth, good professors, such as my wife never use multi-choice tests, but when they get students from secondary schools who’ve been programmed that way, it’s damned hard to undo twelve years of miseducation.

          You’re absolutely correct that the underlying structure of education has to change, but the most important changes have to occur on the elementary and secondary levels, not the collegiate levels. By college, it’s too late in many areas. Basic grammar, style and language patterns are set right around puberty. Extensive research has shown this. So, if a student can’t write in a grammatically correct fashion before college, they’ll struggle all their lives. Once they have the basics down, they can improve all their lives. That’s why children taught foreign languages well and early have no accent.

          In fixing anything, you don’t start at the end; you start at the beginning. Instead, far too many people are focusing on higher education, rather than on truly addressing the problems where they begin. I’ve advocated changes on those levels for years. Right now, I’m reporting on who and what is arriving at colleges and universities. Don’t blame the reporter.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    My wife and I helped start a charter school in the rural town in which we lived for K-8 because we couldn’t find a decent school within 40 miles that did anything but either teach the Three R’s poorly or only teach towards ‘The Test’ at the end of the year.

    Fast forward 4 years and we have the same problem with the H.S. Fortunately, we don’t have to help start one of those…. there are 3 good ones, but it is still a 35 mile drive each way every morning and evening… and sometimes on Saturdays.

    The local high school agency “can’t figure out” why their enrollment is declining. My wife, bless her, did their research for them.
    1. Only 16% of the local students were ‘college ready’ by California standards.
    2. If you wanted any mathematics more advanced than geometry, laboratory science (necessary for good colleges), a language other than spanish, or vocational-technical training that would actually be work-ready at graduation….

    …. you couldn’t go to high school in our town.

    It is a small town. But it isn’t that small a town. Some of it is failure at the level of the state – but state underfunding is a cliche’ for a reason. Some of the problem is that the Teachers’ Union literally has a stranglehold on the district: at contract negotiations, they asked for a 15% raise despite their poor academics and the fact that they are the highest paid teachers in the county because it is difficult to get teachers to come to our town because we are so isolated.

    And finally, some of it is because the situation has been in place so long that the parents of the current students went through the local high school and their attitude is “what’s the problem?”

    The problem is apathy… at too many levels and from too many angles.

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