To begin this one, a little disclaimer:
This article contains numerous general and/or broad statements, which may appear unfair if they are not considered within their proper context. There are many exceptions to what I state in the following paragraphs, although it is my belief that the aforementioned general statements are indeed applicable to the majority of students (and people of a specific generation). I would like to be very clear that any criticisms, implied or explicit, are not aimed toward educational institutions themselves, but rather toward the state of affairs in which youth achieve agency in today’s world. This is something that I describe in somewhat colourful terms in this post. I believe that these circumstances are a reflection of many different elements of current society, but naturally they tend to surface in places where youth are found in high concentrations. Universities are examples of such places, and I believe they do play an important role here. I believe that universities can become more positive influences and send messages about ownership of circumstances and choices, as well as accountability to committments. At the end of they day I do recognise that they sell a product, and they must market said product both to youth and those who are invested in youth, – such as parents, guardians, government bodies, and even private and public donors. The issue is complex and the matrix of influences extends well beyond universities themselves. I would personally love to find a way to make a positive contribution to empower students with resources and avenues which truly do help them to understand that successes in life come from within. Is there a way that this message can be relayed within the narrative of campus sales pitches? I sure hope so…
With that out of the way, here we go!
Go to any university campus in Canada and walk into an enrolment office or sit in on an undergraduate-level lecture. Go ahead, don’t be shy. You might notice something interesting if you do.
It is almost as though some unseen, unknown, noxious gas is pumped into each of the rooms in these campus buildings, even spilling out to fill the hallways and corridors. It seems as though this is achieved in a similar manner that a gas might be pumped into chambers by some terrible machine. It feels ominous. It feels as though it even clings to one’s hair and clothing, and the longer one is exposed to it the less likely one is to ever be able to wash it out.
The ‘machine’ I speak of is the staff in these institutions: professors, administrative, and management. Perhaps the machine is simply the institution itself, but it is difficult to say. One begets the other. Chicken and egg.
The ‘gas’ I speak of is the following narrative: “It doesn’t matter who you are; you need this degree. This education will make you a better person in every conceivable way. An undergraduate degree in (insert something obscure and/or useless) is going to be the key to your success in life and will prove that you are capable of anything.”
Hmmmm. Hell of a sales pitch.
Those of you who know me already know exactly where this article is headed, as my opinions on this matter have remained about the same for close to two decades now. For those of you who do not know me or who are up for some entertainment on this fine day, I welcome you to read on and seriously consider the things I am about to say here.
Undergraduate university education, in and of itself, does nothing but produce and reproduce a mediocre sim-like race; however, it is a far more dangerous strain of sim than which comprises humanity-at-large. Members of this strain have each been patted on their backs and given their magic pieces of paper which have convinced them they are capable and special. Most are neither capable nor special, regardless of what their tickets (paid in full) or ribbons dictate. A bachelor’s degree as an end goal is a complete waste of time and money for most people. Unless this credential is a stepping stone to a Masters-then-PhD, law, or medicine, it is a cash grab for universities. Plain and simple.
For the sliver of the population who manage to draw the best from the ‘learning experience’ of formal education of this nature and maintain (or genuinely improve) their identities and original thoughts, they never needed this type of education to begin with. They are more than capable of succeeding without it. Why? Because these people are already curious by nature. They are already motivated. They are smart, and they take pride in what they do. When the going gets tough they take a step back, strategically assess their approaches, then they roll up their sleeves and double their efforts. They are not built for passive acceptance of defeat, because opportunities excite them. They find opportunities to learn and grow at every turn, and where there are none – well, they create them. Unfortunately, these people are not found in abundance. For the remaining majority, a garden variety undergraduate education doesn’t produce intelligent, cultured, or original minds. It doesn’t produce any sort of character whatsoever. In fact, with the amount of coddling and accommodating – or even rewarding (!) – of mediocrity that we see on campuses today, the years spent as students in these institutions actually prepare youth for nothing more than very rude awakenings in the real world.
For the majority, a bachelor’s degree on the wall is a lot like very expensive lipstick on a pig. Make what you will of that.
Note that this can also apply to those who are freshly minted PhDs and others who have extended their education beyond the BA/BSc/BCom/BShiza. You can always spot the profs who went straight from their parents’ homes to campuses, and then just never left. They may be bright academically, but they have that same sheltered and out-of-touch stupidity about them that old timey housewives who went straight from their parents’ homes to their husbands’ always have. Substitute a penchant for KitchenAid or Le Crouset for something equally inane or uninteresting, and you get the picture. I am friends with many PhD holders, doctors, and lawyers. I am good friends with the ones whose paths to where they are now have enabled them to dip their toes in the lava of a world outside of the comforts of parental homes and campus environments.
I can’t help but wonder if the amount of professors who have never known life outside of their comfortable bubbles account for our current academic climate, in which it is a startling (and rare) occasion that a direct answer from a direct question about academic performance can even be obtained. Somewhere along the line the happy world of academe, which was supposedly built on ideals of reaching higher and striving for better, has become so terrified of hurting feelings (with honesty?) it has sacrificed the practical means to these very ideals. Negative feedback either does not exist now, or it is sugarcoated to such excess that it actually resembles congratulations for jobs… well, …done (*shrug*). Kids sail through with B (or worse) grades, yet they are still reassured time and time again that these mediocre performances which achieve (*ahem*) their ‘magic bean degrees’ really do destine them for great things. Generally speaking, undergraduate work is not even remotely difficult. If one’s tuition is paid and one manages to show up for even just one or two classes in a given semester, and manages to hand in anything – literally any steaming pile of nonsense at all – then it’s as though there is some secret rule that one cannot fail a class. It is my personal contention that one would need to actively try to achieve anything less than a B+ in about 90% of undergraduate courses.
When we factor in the 4, 5, or even 6 years that students commonly take to complete their degrees these days, they have all the time in the world to put at least some effort in (between their high-pressure jobs at McDonalds and Snapchat). Do they not? I completed a BA (Hons) with a GPA of 3.9 in just two years. I have no doubt that this GPA would have been a 4.0 had I also enjoyed the luxury of double or more time. The thing is, I do not consider myself an exceptionally clever cookie or deserving of any kind of praise for this, and I can say with surety that I do not deserve a pretty ribbon. I am merely an individual who set a goal and saw it to completion (through, you know, work). My BA was just a necessary step to law and the MBA, and at the end of the day it was mostly just an extra bill – for my time (which is legitimately valuable) and for my money (which is legitimately my own – not my parents’ or fiancé’s). I won’t say that there were not experiences that I enjoyed or professors who inspired me (there certainly were!), but overall the time and money spent on the BA has not rendered me a better person by any stretch of the imagination. If I am a better person, it is because of an independent effort I have made to strive to be better – as I have always made and as I define ‘better.’ At the end of the day this is a moot point though, which I recognise.
My problem is that this education also masquerades as an automatic given that students improve as people. However, no one – friends, professors, parents, etc. – ever tells people when they fall short anymore. I have and do on a regular basis, and this is not because I am cruel. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is because I am not 5 years old and neither are the recipients of my feedback. I can separate feedback about a thing I have done from a judgment about who I am. I appreciate honest feedback (good and bad) because it actually helps me. It isn’t comfortable or pleasant, but I suspect that this discomfort and displeasure are part of why honest feedback actually does help people. Operating outside of comfort zones pushes people to really look at themselves and improve. This applies to all kinds of feedback in life, and therefore this observation is not limited to academic work or projects.
Oddly, each time I have attempted to provide constructive criticism or help (or express frustration because it has always been me who has compensated for others’ lack of efforts in ‘group’ or ‘collaborative’ projects) in an academic context, the results have been disastrous. I won’t pretend that my approach is always the most diplomatic, but even so these experiences have been confounding.
Today’s youth take very personal offense to any kind of feedback that is not praise. I have seen people cry, raise their voices, and hurl personal insults in the general directions of the vessels of honesty. They do this because they are unable, or rather, – unwilling – to distinguish between the truth (which does not change regardless of whether it is said or not said) and the messengers of said truth. However, this is not entirely their fault. Today’s youth have been deluded to the point that they believe their shortcomings or disadvantages entitle them to accommodations to their needs. They genuinely believe they have little or even no responsibility to bear accountability for their commitments, or even to find opportunities to grow through adversities. But why would they? These shortcomings provide them with agency (read: power).
Today’s youth have been taught to focus their energies on the ever-more-avid crusade for the world to simply bend to them or their perceived needs, or to outright do things for them. Because they are special. Because they are unique. And, if they are students, because completing their undergraduate degrees over the course of half a decade, while living under their parents’ roofs, is so difficult and stressful! It’s truly overwhelming, I’m sure. Poor creatures. They really deserve bigger ribbons. Here, just give them all the ribbons! *insert me throwing a billowing armful of ribbons around the campus here*
What kind of world will be forged from this ribbon-giving insanity, and what are the implications for society’s future if it is built on it? Will we eventually just get to the point that we create a world where everyone is rewarded for breathing, and absolutely nothing ever gets done? Should I be investing in ribbon manufacturers now? Maybe I’ll look into that… 😛
In my undergraduate studies I always felt like the last dinosaur for a number of reasons, but primarily because of such a wide difference in my mindset from the popular one. I had never felt this way in the real world, because this is not the real world – yet. I have thought about this, and I wonder what type of world we will see in 50 years if this disturbing mentality takes over. It appears inevitable, and this is scary.
I keep having this frightening vision that the noxious gas I spoke of will create a sludge over those who cannot wash it out of their hair and clothes, engulfing them. Then it would spread like molasses through cities and towns, then through highways and fields. Eventually it would cover the Earth, – extinguishing the small sliver of accountable and dedicated individuals out there.
I shudder to think that this may very well be how the extinction of my kind happens one day. I hope that I am proven wrong.