The Fragile Generation

This past semester, my wife, the voice and opera professor, has been faced with the most fragile and unprepared group of incoming students that she’s seen in more than fifty years of teaching, although for the past decade or so she’s found that incoming students have become increasingly fragile and less academically prepared.

Not only are the vast majority unable to write a coherent paragraph, but most of them have difficulty reading material that the majority of previous classes could handle. They also have difficulty following class discussions, in turning in assignments on time, and in being able to attend class regularly. And we’re not talking about minority students, but predominantly western USA whitebread students.

They consider writing a thousand word essay as a major and unnecessary trial and fifty pages of reading a week as excessive.

Every single faculty member in the music department is facing the same issues, as are faculty members in any department that is attempting to actually get students to study and to learn. According to a university staff psychologist, roughly forty percent of the incoming students in the university suffer from depression and/or have anxiety issues.

In the field of music, as in most fields, professional musicians and music teachers have to know the music, the techniques, and the history behind their studies, but these incoming students don’t know how to write or how to learn and memorize music. They’re under the illusion that they can Google everything, and they often get sullen or resentful when they find out that they can’t… and they also can’t be separated from their cellphones. Under university policy, while faculty can request students to put away cellphones, faculty can’t prohibit them in class. One student in another department even requested that the university director of ADA certify her cellphone as a psychological necessity after her professor asked her to stop using it incessantly in class.

Many of them break down in tears – and the males tend to be bigger babies than the women – when they discover that they actually have to work to pass a class.

Yet the administration pressures faculty members to do everything they can to keep students in school, even students who’ve missed weeks of classes because they’re too stressed out to attend classes.

Given the way the students are when they arrive at the university, there’s too much they’re not being taught in elementary and secondary schools, and they’re certainly not being taught true self-discipline or accountability. But everyone seems to think it’s the job of college faculty to undo all the damage caused by overindulgent parents and elementary and secondary school teachers bludgeoned into submission to the “self-esteem” requirements forced on them, largely by parents.

17 thoughts on “The Fragile Generation”

  1. Elena says:

    No, a thousand page essay isn’t an especially long essay to write. However, on a five course semester, it’s all too easy to have three, or even four of those due in the same week, or even day. I remember weeks like that (and before someone says “write it early”, I also remember the teachers only giving the topics to write on about three weeks before the due date, giving you maybe a week per essay to research and write. Less if the class has required dates to hand in rough drafts and refine before the final submission, which I remember some classes requring).

    Similarly, I had semesters where I’d end up with three hundred to five hundred pages of reading per week, plus research for the aforementioned essays because each teacher would forget that all the other teachers were assigning reading, homework and quizzes too. And some of those teachers would dock you if you didn’t use their particular favorite reference work – only one copy available in the reference section of the library – in your research (not living on campus, that often meant an extra trip to and from the university on weekends when public transit was even spottier). Top all this with a part time job and about three hours of public transit in the day (getting to and from the university, the job and home).

    Still, it could be done with semi-decent time-management skills. I remember getting a lot of my reading done in the break room at work (and pulling a lot of all-nighters finishing essays). But that was ten years ago. Perhaps expectations and requirements have changed in the intervening years?

    What’s more, there’s a lot more quality material available online for research than there was when I was in university, depending on the subject area, so potentially that’s less time spent in the library (or on the way to/from the library at least).

    1. In my wife’s classes, all major assignments are in the syllabus which they receive on the first day of class. Songs they have to learn are assigned within the first two weeks.

    2. Alan says:

      When I completed my masters two years ago, and my bachelors a few years prior to that, as LEM stated, everything major was in the syllabus. Term paper due dates, exam dates, reading assignments and subject matter for all of the preceeding.

      My observation as a 40 year old going through college was that it really is a failing system because the students expect to be handed a passing grade. Teachers are often afraid to truly be demanding of students. Asking them to know the material or be on time with assignments is just too difficult for the students. And any teacher who holds the students to that standard is brutalized on the end of semester reviews by the students, putting their jobs at serious risk.

      Ultimately this is hurting the students, and down the line the companies they will work for. Students are showing up for college unprepared, going through college without any effort or demands upon them, then graduating to go on to the work force where their employer is going to demand results they are going to be ill-equipped to provide.

      I feel it is primarily because of the parents and lower levels of education not providing a rigorous and demanding environment. No one is claiming you need to abuse the kids with 16 hours of classroom work a day, demanding straight A’s. However it is not unreasonable to expect that some one’s attempt to learn should be treated as a full time commitment and 2nd job.

      For all three of my degrees I was working full time (plus over time), going to school with 18+ credit hours per semester, raising my kids and still managed to have time to be a martial arts instructor. It took good time management skills, dedication to all of the above and not being lazy. Yes, it was stressful, but the pay out at the end was certainly worth it.

  2. Nathaniel says:

    My wife is a professor (accounting) and has worked in the last decade in the south (expensive private school) and in the midwest (regional public school). Her students in both locations have been *significantly* more prepared than the students you/your wife encounters, both now and in the years I’ve been following this blog- better concentration, focus, aptitude, whatever. It makes me wonder if there’s something in the water in Utah, or if it’s just that all the better students there this decade go to BYU or out of state.

    On the other hand, her students do align with what you describe in terms of how many of them are emotionally and mentally not prepared for college or real life- simultaneously perfectionists unable to deal with failure (or a B) and students without an adequate base of knowledge and study skills and life skills to attempt to be perfect on; trying to power through too many courses at once like they did in high school instead of slowing down and focusing and without the emotional and mental stability to have a prayer of actually doing it.

    I don’t think it’s overindulgent parents, though- especially at the southern private school, many of them had demanding parents instead. It seems to be instead that, regardless of socioeconomic class, a great number of students right now have simply never been taught how to be either resilient or flexible- they’re told to do X, either by their parents or by their teachers, whether X is to get the grades or do the class or do the expected activities, and they do X until they can’t and then they fall apart because no one ever taught them how to change goals or methods but only demanded results.

    So you end up with children who are nominally adults, who need a psychiatrist much more than they need a professor because they’re not really prepared to learn if it means they need to stretch themselves to do it. Or maybe I’m wrong; maybe SUU just gets nothing but failed, coddled, under-prepared students – but coddled children don’t usually have anxiety until *after* they start failing things.

    1. I’m not saying that all her students are like that. A handful are good and can handle the work, but it’s the first time where a majority of them, despite decent and even good grades in high school, come unprepared and unequipped both emotionally and academically. Then, too, it’s the first class where SAT/ACT scores weren’t required or considered.

      1. Chris says:

        It’s also the first year after students were “learning” at home, being taught by teachers that weren’t given the time or training on how to prepare proper lesson plans for remote learning, and not getting support from their parents because they were also just trying to figure out how to get by in a drastically changed environment. So the students’ skills degraded, they lost the ability to concentrate because of all the distractions around them at “school,” and they now have major self-esteem problems because they aren’t able to perform at the level they did prior to the pandemic.

        I have no idea how that can be fixed, other than pain for everyone involved and substantially more income for therapists for the next several years, but lowering standards isn’t a good option.

        1. I very much agree that the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, and may account for this being the most fragile group of students your wife has encountered.

          As to the longer-term reasons behind increased fragility, I don’t know, but there are quite a few possible factors — cell phones, social media, changes in education, depression/anxiety about issues like climate change, parents spending less time with young children, et al.

  3. Postagoras says:

    There have been a ton of better practices in parenting evolved since my childhood, and it’s been a marvel to apply them as a parent. But many parents seem to forget that the goal is competent, independent adults.
    Parents have access to much more information about their kids these days. The often-criticized helicopter parents vigilantly use this data. But the worst are the snowplow parents, the ones who anticipate and smooth out every obstacle. It’s done out of love but the kids never develop simple grit.

    1. Darcherd says:

      That’s a very good point. I hadn’t heard the term “snowplow parents” before but it’s an apt analogy.
      I recall from my days going through Officer Candidate School upon entering the military how the staff there explained that the level and type of discipline would change over the 16 weeks of OCS, since their objective was to turn out competent junior officers, not perfect Officer Candidates who would, “Reflexively brace up against the bulkhead whenever a LTJG walked past.” Being able to grit your teeth and do nothing beyond offering quiet encouragement when your child fails is really hard to do as a parent…but it’s absolutely vital.

  4. Joe says:

    We know the solution: fail them, and improve intake procedures so that only competent students attend. That means more tests of competence, such as the SAT/ACT, and less dumbing down of the curriculum. Those unable to keep up can find opportunities that do not require a university degree.

    We’re not going to have much of a civilization left, if we keep making things easy in the name of “equity” (but actually because teachers can’t teach). “Shame about the Dakotas, Mr President, apparently the nuclear weapons detonated on take off.”

    1. Tim says:

      Failing poor quality is the only real solution.

      When my son passed out as Royal Marine the instructors there told me that the quality of the intakes nowadays was not what it was 10 years ago and instead of taking really fit and motivated young men, you had to take the risk that some would turn into that. At least half pf each intake fail (though there is of course the view that the instructors want that or they would be thought soft)

  5. Stu says:

    I would try to remember that these students have had to go through the past two years during the pandemic. Depending on their age, this could mean that their last years of highschool- the years that were supposed to prep them for college level work- were highly disrupted and ineffective. Even the older students would have experience more of college during the pandemic than not. If your wife is teaching with the same rigor and expectations as she would pre-pandemic, she’s probably one of the relatively few who hasn’t lowered their standards.
    These kids would be more unprepared and have more mental illness because they are going through one of their biggest transitions in life with a raging pandemic and social media that is getting more and more aggressive at hacking into their minds. These kids have the disadvantage of entering the adult world and attempting to begin meeting adult expectations without having finished mental development and with additional horrible challenges facing them.
    I don’t intend to assign moral values to any involved. I feel like there is a lot of context to the students’ experiences that need to be viewed and understood.

    1. These students didn’t live through a Great Depression, WWII, the Korean War or the Vietnam War, and during those wars, male students faced the draft. Almost all of the first year students this past year were born after 9/11. They have more freedom and less real-world stress and have been held less accountable and, in general, to lower academic standards, largely, in my opinion, because too many parents chose not to be parents and too many educators were pressed by those parents to relax standards and accountability. While I feel sorry for these students, at some point they will be held accountable, if not at the university level, then by life itself. I just hope the United States can survive the process.

      1. Stu says:

        I fully respect that, my grandfather was a paratrooper in Vietnam and it left a lot of scars on him. I don’t intend any disrespect to previous generations, I’m just hoping to add context to the experiences of younger students. Because they did spend their entire lives with the country at war abroad, with terrorist attacks happening regularly at home, and school shootings happening near constantly for a time.
        They also grew up during the great recession, which wasn’t as severe as the Depression, but it still left a mark. Especially since economic prospects are far worse for this generation than for any of those born post Depression.
        In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam makes a compelling data driven argument that the nation’s built environment is playing a large role in the decline in mental resiliency over time. In short, before suburban sprawl and superhighways spread everyone out so much, adults and children were able to walk and bike around their communities, form bonds and relationships and be active civic members. By the 21st century, children growing up in any suburban community will have grown up without the ability to easily hangout and build group bonds, forming fewer deep relationships, building fewer and weaker support circles, and their mental resiliency suffers.
        The author sums up his findings much better than I can, and I’m not qualified to debate the merits of the argument, but it does provide a data backed narrative for why generations seem to have lower resiliency over time.

        My final note is not about providing context for young adults. It is just my personal belief that the United States is far more likely to suffer and break apart due to the decades that Baby Boomers and other post WWII generations have hollowed out and exploited the economic and political institutions in the US for personal gain. The damage that they have done collectively seems to me to be far greater than that done by overly anxious and depressed young and middle aged adults would be able to do.

        1. Tom says:

          While I tend to agree that we “… Baby Boomers and other post WWII generations have hollowed out and exploited the economic and political institutions in the US for personal gain.”

          The damage done “… by overly anxious and depressed young and middle aged adults…” is different and also very significant to the US.

          A recent Pew poll indicates that US citizens seem to desire authoritarian leadership and yet we see a similar intense desire for the right of self-sovereignty. It seems that both the old and the young have this schizophrenic tendency – I can understand its presence to some extent for the youth; but for the Boomers?! It seems to me that it is the young and middle aged who are driving the US to a localized set of authoritarian Confederation. And yes it is the Boomers who have weakened the US Constitutional system of government through their greed and self-indulgence or self-sovereignty.

          We seem to be in desperate need of the mythical benign dictator: who would preserve the US at the expense of the reverse power structure which cannot support a nation – a confederation of states. Look at the difficulty the EU has had administrating itself for the last (almost) 30 years, preceded by the slightly different organizations under similar labels since 1951.

          Yes the Fragile Generation and its presumed educational/societal origin is a different problem from our political chaos but they may be a likely reason for the eventual failure of democracy. Sure the Chinese think communism is democracy and indeed Lenin and Trotsky tried to aim communism in that direction but only the ‘alternate facts’ used by communists would fit this concept of ‘democracy’.

  6. Cranberry says:

    There are no doubt multiple reasons for the fragility your wife observes.

    One reason, in my opinion, was the introduction of the Common Core standards, particularly in English (Language Arts) and Social Studies. As reported in the press, the reading of entire books was gutted, while so-called “close reading” was encouraged. Thus, you end up with students who have spent much of their pre-college education reading short pieces, rather than novels. It takes time to develop facility at reading longer works.

    Of course, the curriculum was also revamped. The canon has been discouraged, in order to push more contemporary stuff. All well and good, in moderation, but unfortunately modern, popular writers do not write at the level of Dickens or Shakespeare. They just don’t.

    I will add that we chose to send our children to rigorous boarding schools, where they did read the classics, as well as more challenging modern works. So I’m not trying to excuse my children’s failings. They’re all able to read longer works. However, we did witness the changes in the curriculum in our local public school system.

  7. Cranberry says:

    As to whether parents are over-indulgent, I think that varies by region and town. We have lived in one of Charles Murray’s “Super Zip” towns. Parental pressure on children to achieve in class and extracurriculars can be overwhelming. Paradoxically, I think that can also create fragility, in that students have not had free time since elementary school. Going without sleep for extended periods of time during middle and high school is not healthy.

    The students who have never failed at anything are also fragile, when they leave their parents’ care. Then again, I know there are parents who are still “editing” their children’s papers in college. Is that indulgent? I don’t know. It seems to me to be setting up a child for problems in adulthood.

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