Motivating the “Latest Generation”

I’m fed up with the all the education and policy bullshit that declares that the U.S. – and sometimes even the world – needs to revamp education totally in order to motivate students of the present generation.

Exactly why is it the responsibility of educators to provide motivation for students who have none? Recently, more and more students insist that they know what they need to learn… and how they should be taught. And the more educators follow those demands, the less the students learn.

I’m sorry. Eighteen to twenty year olds, for the most part, don’t know what they need to know. Many of them know, or think they know, what they want to be and where they want to go in life, but the majority have no idea of the intellectual and nuts-and-bolts skills that they’ll need.

And, frankly, some educators don’t, either. I ran into some of those when I was in college studying political science and politics. I had my doubts then, but kept my mouth shut. Looking back after a career in politics, I now know that several had no real inkling of what politics was like. But I also have to admit that most of them did know what they were talking about, and several had real-time, real-life political experience.

I happen to be married to a professor of voice and opera who was also a professional singer, and in the course of that professional career, she’s sung and been paid to sing everything from opera to musical theatre and even on one occasion, a country and western demo record. She didn’t graduate from a big name university or conservatory and had to work her way up. After fifty years in the field, and more than thirty as an artist in residence or a professor, she knows what’s required to be successful. Students who took her seriously have been successful; those who haven’t have never gotten anywhere, simply because they never did the work to develop not only their voices but the necessary ancillary skills, such as the ability to learn music both accurately and quickly, or the keyboard skills necessary to work out music and memorization – because you can’t use sheet music onstage to sing opera.

But more and more of the younger generation are looking for short-cuts, and they want to be inspired. They don’t want to go to concerts, or even to listen to recordings of outstanding singers. They want to be the center of attention – now. Otherwise, they’re not interested.

I also find it interesting that thousands upon thousands of young people in the U.S. suddenly became highly motivated to address the issue of school shootings – because, all of a sudden, it struck them that they and others like them were getting killed. In a way, the same thing happened in the late 1960s when it dawned on the then-younger generation that they were the ones being sent to Vietnam and getting killed in what they perceived as a useless war.

The problem with this sort of interest is that it only centers on the immediate. And once the immediate passes, or society doesn’t react to the protests, the interest fades. The same is true of students in higher education. But what they need is the ability to work, not only at what interests them, but at the facets of whatever area they’re studying that don’t interest them, because there’s not a single profession anywhere or anytime that doesn’t have drudgery and mundane and routine work involved.

Nor are there that many high-paid professions that don’t require reading and writing. The need to master both isn’t about to go away for one simple reason. We live in an information culture, and reading is by far the fastest way to assimilate information. Yet college students are protesting more and more about too much reading, when today’s students are required to read only a fraction of what previous generations did.

Memorizing music is hard and repetitive work, especially in the classical field, because the singer can’t rely very often on simplistic repetitive musical phrases. Economists have to peruse and analyze a great deal of very boring data, and so far, computers can’t find the less obvious patterns… or figure out what those patterns mean. As for writing… almost all writers go through multiple drafts, followed by editorial corrections, followed by proofing galleys, etc., and those are the successful ones.

And in these and most other professions, there’s no one cheering you on, either note by note, or data-point by data-point, or word by word. That’s life, and college is where students should be learning that the only inspiration that matters is their own, not where professors cater to every whim, or where students must have their grades on a daily or weekly basis because they can’t be bothered to calculate them on their own.

University professors should be engaged, encouraging, knowledgeable, accessible, current in their fields, and willing and able to impart knowledge and skills to those willing to work and learn. They should not be required to be cheerleaders and motivators, not in college. Classroom motivation is a large and necessary part of elementary school, but along the way, students need to learn self-motivation, and how to work and succeed on their own by the time they leave high school.

2 thoughts on “Motivating the “Latest Generation””

  1. Tom says:

    I am old enough to know that I have learned when I have made an effort to learn.

    I also know from experience that I learn quicker and easier when my teacher is interested in teaching and not just working a job. That is not a matter of cheer-leading but a transfer of their joy of the subject being taught.

    I also realize that just as I am not able to learn all subjects as well as I would like, not all teachers can impart the excitement of the subject they teach. Telling a student that, this subject, is not something they should pursue is within the responsibility of teaching even if the student is not ‘failing’.

    Not all failing students fail because of their laziness nor do they fail because of a lack of cheer-leading from their teacher. In order to learn successfully, effort is required from both student and teacher.

  2. Darcherd says:

    Interestingly, when universities were first founded in the Middle Ages, they were run by the students who decided which teachers they wanted to pay to teach them and in which subjects. This lack of discipline and any checks on their impulses frequently led to students running wild, rioting in the university towns and in some cases the towns banning the students. To say nothing of the quality of education received when students were defining it. But I digress…
    As the saying goes, the problem with autodidacts is that they have such lousy teachers. By definition, students don’t know enough to even know what they don’t know, let alone in which order to study the topics so that they build a framework of knowledge that will make it easier to assimilate and retain additional knowledge.
    And finally, I’m not sure if the conditions and attitudes of current students represent a trend or simply a historical phase. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970’s, a lot of my fellow students were far more focused on political protest (oh, yeah, and getting high) than they were in studying. But by the time I graduated, we were shifting into what would be described as the “me” generation and – however else one may deplore the attendant self-centeredness – it did result in a much more studious and hard working set of college students, if only to assure themselves of lucrative jobs when they graduated.

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