Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Students as children

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A recurring complaint in my current readings is that the young people of today* are too lacking in maturity, willingness to take adult responsibilities, and similar—often and, in my opinion, correctly putting at least a partial blame on the way that parents and schools cuddle or restrict the children from an early age up until college graduation. I would go as far as blaming the principle of school, of putting a large group of children together with just one or two adults, for much of the problems: The end result is that the children take after each other instead of adults. They see the conflict-solving strategies of children instead of adults. They approach social relations like they see the other children instead of adults. They take their examples for spare-time behavior from children instead of adults. Etc.

*I note, however, that similar complaints are not unique to today. It might well be worse today than in the past, but the problem is not new, and at least a part of the explanation for at least some age ranges involves physical maturity. Equally, it cannot necessarily be assumed that someone treated more like an adult as a child will automatically show the same maturity at 20 as does a 40, 60, or 80 year old. The difference might be smaller or larger, depending on treatment, but is unlikely to disappear altogether—the process of maturing is life long.

However, the most disturbing part (and my real prompt for this post) is the increasing tendency to treat specifically college students like children. While this is very extreme in the U.S., it is spreading to countries like Germany, as shown e.g. by the increase of mandatory presence and reduction of academic freedom in the wake of the Bologna process. (Generally, there are many complaints around the Bologna process, but it is rarely clear what is caused by it and what has merely coincided.)

To look at the U.S., apart from the academic attitude, we have such perfidious problems like colleges limiting free speech and discourse (including for faculty…) to “protect” the easily offended, instituting conduct rules outside of what is academically relevant, and instigating quasi-legal proceedings* in lieu of the police and DA—and often doing so with restrictions that are contrary to the principles of a functioning justice system, including presumption of innocence, burden of proof (“preponderance of evidence” instead of “beyond reasonable doubt”) right to counsel, and right to face the accuser. On the extreme end, there have apparently been instances of college students earnestly being given coloring books—something normally intended for pre-schoolers… In all fairness, these instances appear to be unrelated to academic activities and more along the lines of stress relief, but the example is still telling in at least two regards: Firstly, the low level of confidence put in the students; secondly, the over-mothering that goes on.

*This is particularly perfidious, because in a sane society this things should be handled by the real justice system—end of story. A college should have no option but to accept the results and to act accordingly.

In contrast to this over-mothering and condescension, I (Sweden, mid-1990s) had monetary and logistic support from my (actual) parents, but I handled studying, pressure, planing, …, entirely on my own*—and it never even occurred to me that such help could or should come from a quasi-parent college. Probably, it never occurred to the college either, because I never saw information concerning such help**. On the contrary, we did fairly advanced calculus in year one and were expected to cope, used Unix computers with Bash and Emacs***, the transition from Windows (or to computers!) eased by written documentation, and were generally faced with an attitude of “Get it done!”—and those who did not, they usually got out. Where we today hear of employers complaining that college graduates are too lazy, spoiled, undisciplined, whatnot, having to grow up “on the job”, I started very high and have actually declined**** over my working life…

*Likely to the point that my mother felt left out and would have enjoyed being more needed—and definitely better informed. (There were a number of complaints…)

**Actually, as I write this, I vaguely recall that there was an experiment with a mentoring program, where we were each assigned a member of faculty: I visited him once, and never saw the point to come back—and he said that I had been the only one among his charges to make even that first visit… (With hindsight, this was likely naive of me, and given a do-over I would act differently. The point for the purpose of this post, however, is that the interest in such help was low, despite requirements on the students that went far beyond those put on today’s U.S. freshmen.)

***Come to think of it, this might have been the soft option: Real men use vi…

***In these regards. I have obviously gained in others, including work-related knowledge and experience, social skills, and more general maturity.

Some of these effects can be explained, but not excused, by factors like the degradation of the preceding education steps (less mature high-school students make for less mature freshmen) and the steady increase of the proportion of the population that is sent to college (which implies that the proportion of students with a poor suitability increases). The correct way to handle this, however, would be to apply adult rules and let those students unable to cope leave to do something they are better suited for.

The U.S. situation is obviously complicated by the low age of entry* and the prevalence of the campus concept**: A student who lives on campus spends a very major part of his spare time on college property and in a non-academic relationship with the college, which implies a degree of dependency and interaction not normally present.

*Compared to e.g. Sweden and Germany, the U.S. high school ends a year earlier and falls even shorter in terms of content (although comparisons are made harder by the ongoing “academic inflation” in various countries). A German “Abitur” graduate is likely closer to the academic level of a U.S. “associates degree” than that of a U.S. high-school diploma.

**A more typical set-up internationally is that the campus is just various school buildings (lecture halls, administrative offices, research labs, …), while the students live in regular apartments (if they can afford it) or in dorms or “collectives” (for want of a better word) typically run by other parties than the college.

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 4, 2017 at 10:35 pm

4 Responses

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  1. […] result of an extra school year is more time spent with age peers and less with adults, yet more time with adults will give the children better examples, better opportunities to learn, etc. More time with other […]

  2. […] and diligence, and that this proxy function is increasingly destroyed. Similarly, the greater infantilization of college students removes the proxy effect for ability to work and think for […]

  3. […] let children learn adult practices from adults, instead of childish practices from children? (Cf. [1] for this and some other issues around school and education; also e.g. [2] and [3] for more on the […]

  4. […] For some discussion of age-based limits in general, see [1]. For issues around undue prolongation of childhood, see e.g. [2]. […]


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