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Margin Notes

Bridging the inter-generational student gap

A guest post by Carleton University journalism student David Meffe.


Each year University Affairs offers two internship placements of one or two weeks’ duration to Carleton University journalism students. I coordinate these internships and it is always an enjoyable experience for me to work with the students. Since last week, fourth-year journalism student David Meffe has been with us reporting on and writing stories for the magazine. He was also invited, and accepted, to write the following guest blog post for us on the issue of student stress, which has been in the news recently. We welcome his point of view. Take it away, David!

Despite what shopping mall speakers are trying to make me believe, this is not the most wonderful time of the year, not yet at least. As usual, there’s one giant roadblock standing between students and a winter break filled with spiked eggnog and endless consequence-free procrastination: the almighty and universally dreaded exam period.

As per the season, Globe and Mail columnists Margaret Wente and Gary Mason fired shots back and forth last week, debating whether today’s universities are breeding a generation of self-entitled students incapable of dealing with pressure or the inevitable challenges of “The Real World.” This, coupled with hundreds of panicked news stories about record-breaking levels of student stress has once again given rise to the ever-circular debate over today’s lazier-than-ever students and our culture of mediocrity in the face of challenges.

Yet, from what I can see, the bulk of the criticism is stemming from baby boomers like Ms. Wente who see today’s education system as coddling and unrealistic, causing the very same stresses they’re seeking to alleviate. But are today’s students really being bred for failure or are critics like Ms. Wente deliberately seeking controversy by comparing apples and oranges?

I don’t think stress levels have reached pandemic proportions, but I do think I belong to a generation that loves to complain, especially when all our worldly woes can be validated by our peers with the click of a “Like” button. Once the season hits, we all know to brace ourselves for the onslaught of whiney exam-related social media posts that are undoubtedly coming. We’ve unfortunately all made peace with this, many choosing to join in on the fun.

But now we see the emergence of new methods aimed at trying to decompress students, from puppy petting rooms to seasonal counselling and even free cocoa.  But are we being coddled or are the squeaky wheels just getting their grease? Many boomers like to believe that since we’re better at communally acknowledging our discontent and anxiety, we must therefore be completely incapable of coping with it.

Do we think we have it any harder than previous generations of students? No. However, does this mean that we’ve thereby earned the condescension we’re seeing from boomers? Absolutely not.

Maybe university isn’t meant to be easy, but stepping on students’ heels doesn’t make our work any more rewarding or the work of others any more valid. Baby boomers talk about how universities have “watered down the standards,” which to me is like being lectured about how students used to have to walk home from school, uphill both ways and without shoes.

This never-ending competition over who had it worse is getting a little ridiculous. I feel like we live in a revolving door of complainers and sanctimonious sympathy seekers, with every generation wanting the next to recognize how bad they had it and how much easier things are now. Molehills become mountains and the persistence of human memory takes for granted the aging mind’s tendency towards a “grass was always browner in my day” mentality.

The quest for higher education has always been difficult, and different generations of students have faced different challenges and subsequently dealt with them in very different ways. I like to think that when Plato complained about his exams, Socrates probably whacked him upside the head and mumbled something about how scrolls in his day were harder to unfurl.

Just because some like to recall their university experience as a school of hard knocks, it doesn’t mean their education is somehow more worthy of ours, or the world’s acknowledgement. I come from a generation that encourages students to talk about anxiety and depression, in the hopes not of being coddled, but rather of making peers understand that these feelings are not only mutual, they’re universal. In this way, we create a university culture that is understanding and empathetic rather than relying on the need to step above those we feel aren’t up to schoolyard snuff.

Instead of bickering over who’s got the biggest academic scars, let’s use a little inter-generational relativity and cut each other some slack. Exams have always sucked, but regardless of what we do to cope, the ultimate test of worth should be whether we chose to flounder or flourish in the face of adversity.

Learning that lesson is the true value of higher education, not the ingrained sense of pride and entitlement that some seem to take away from it.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Amanda / December 11, 2012 at 12:41

    FINALLY. Thank you!

  2. Cathryn / December 12, 2012 at 13:05

    Thank you for this thoughtful, well-articulated post.

  3. Brian Bailey / December 27, 2012 at 13:25

    Two comments:

    1) As an undergrad 30 years ago, some aspects WERE harder – for example, there was no internet therefore no online registration which meant that you had to line up all day for two or three days just to register for your classes – one example of many…HOWEVER,

    2) The writer is absolutely correct when he states that today’s students have a completely different set of challenges that we didn’t face 30 years ago starting with the fact that a BA today means much less to employers and it costs a lot more.

    So give today’s students a break – in fact – help them out!! They are our future!

  4. Jodi / January 2, 2013 at 12:27

    The writer makes some great points – one thing that really hit home for me was what he said about “complainers” and “whiners”. This generation is much better than the boomers at expressing themselves – does it make them whiners – no. Just like we wouldn’t say the boomers are pent-up emotionally because they got told to “Put up or shut up” and “If you want to cry, I’ll give you something to cry about.”

  5. Lisa Ann / January 2, 2013 at 21:26

    This post makes some good points. Yet, I remember having to look on index cards for library holdings and being limited to journals that were available in hard copy in the library, which is similar to point 1 made by Brian Bailey. I also remember having to go to office hours to communicate with a professor. I could not shoot an email asking about citation style a couple of days before an essay was due or requesting clarification on an assignment, but needed to make sure my questions were answered when the professor was available. Of course, these differences don’t speak to the overall quality of education.

    I do know I read a lot more pages per week than I ask my students to read. That may not prove anything substantive, but Richard Arum’s studies, cited by Doug Mataconis, show that many “students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinions, make a clear written arguments or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event.” These studies also claim that students who read more than 40 pages per week and write more than 20 pages a semester show higher rates of learning than those who read and wrote less. (See “College Students Lack Critical Thinking Skills, But Who’s To Blame?” in Outside the Beltway.)

    I don’t know if most students would read that much if I assigned it to them. This past summer I attended a student panel for educators in which the students stated that they did not bother to read the assigned readings in literature classes, but simply read the online summaries of the texts in question.

    Finally, in a class I taught last semester the conversation turned to the condition of university students today. Several of my students said that they have it much harder than previous generations and that their stresses were significantly increased. It was an interesting conversation and I didn’t argue with them because I have no evidence whether or not it’s true. I don’t know if the pressure to succeed or the need to work in addition to attend classes has increased. I could understand the things they were saying because I had experienced them myself as an undergrad.

    I do agree with the author of this article that bickering about who’s got it harder is fruitless and probably better left to journalists who like to start controversies in order to increase their readership. Some more studies along the lines of Richard Arum’s would be interesting.

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