A new campus joke: “Dude, she was all like, ‘What’s that building? It’s, like, so big.’ And I go, ‘That’s the library. There’s like so many books.”
Ha ha ha ha!
Oh, how the tears roll down my face every time I hear that one. It’s the image conjured in the mind, you see. Those wacky kids actually know what the library is!
Of course, knowing where the library was, what was in it, and intuiting the purpose of the objects held there used to be a commonplace. But now, according to Philip Babcock (UC Santa Barbara) and Mindy Marks (UC Riverside), modern students have better things to do than—I love this phrase— engage in “long-form reading“.
You know it’s bad news when academics have to invent a new term to replace an old, perfectly serviceable one. “Reading” used to mean, “reading books.” Now, barely having the patience to scan the 140-characters of a Tweet counts as “short-form reading.” Poor “reading”! It was such a useful word, but it has been massacred by intellectuals.
Babcock and Marks had to rely on self report, and on surveys taken then and now. So all their results should be viewed with caution. For example, how many students, when approached by a campus survey taker, who might well be a professor, will honestly answer “0” when asked how many hours she studies?
A survey from 1961 said kids hit the books about 24 hours a week. That makes sense, since then, as now, the average kid was in class about 15 hours a week. The total is, of course, the standard 40-hour work week.
But current numbers average around 14 hours. In a similar study, “some 32 percent of college freshmen somehow managed to study less than six hours a week.” However, there is a bright spot: there is no political correctness at play:
The decline, Babcock and Marks found, infects students of all demographics. No matter the student’s major, gender, or race, no matter the size of the school or the quality of the SAT scores of the people enrolled there, the results are the same: Students of all ability levels are studying less.
One theory for the decline is that students are more efficient now than then. The evidence for this is as strong as for the existence of Bigfoot. They sure are more distracted, though. All fellow professors who have had this experience, raise your hands: A roomful of kids crack open their computers or uncase their phones and start clacking away during the lecture.
I say, “We don’t need our computers now. Close them up.” Some complain they take notes—presumably posting them to Facebook—and I say, “Don’t take notes. Listen! Besides, everything I say is said better in the book, which you can read.” But then we’re right back to the starting joke.
Babcock and Marks also speculate—though a better word would be “declare”—that teacher evaluations, the forum where poor students take their revenge, has produced a sort of long-term arms race. Professors, knowing that their tenure and promotions depend in part on good ratings, ease off—ever so slightly!—so that the darlings in their charge bump up the number of stars awarded. Others undoubtedly spend more time primping hoping to earn that elusive hotness mark on RateMyProfessors.com.
Others say, “Of course students concentrate less on classwork! They’re busy being engaged.” A modern term which is the obvious euphemism of “not studying.”
Maybe students are being rational anyway. Under grade inflation, another consequence of the arms-race, employers look less to grades—why bother, when everybody has an A- average—and instead look to external activities.
Marks herself points out that employers don’t generally care about the content of job applicants’ classes; theyâ€™re more interested in whether an applicant graduated, was able to meet deadlines, and work within a bureaucracy.
Nowhere did I see mentioned one of the most important reasons why studying has declined. In 1961, only a small fraction of high school graduates attended college. Those that did were intellectually, on average, the best of the crop of kids coming out of school.
But now, the fraction marching from Pomp and Circumstance straight to the ivied walls is much larger, and growing. Many complain the fraction isn’t growing quickly enough! Many would like to see all go to college, this state of grace being declared a new right.
Well, fine. Let all attend; more work for me. But do not expect academic standards to remain high. Just as not everybody can slam dunk a basketball or play the cello in the New York Philharmonic, not all can assimilate the material in a classic (as was) education.
A specific prediction: as the fraction of graduates entering college increases, the number of average hours study will decrease.