I noticed, last night, that the parking lot is filling, an omninous sign. What it portends--no, doesn't portend but signifies--is that they're back, the students I mean. The football team lumbers in, grunting, then the more graceful soccer teams, then a dozen lanky volleyballers, and finally the all-American dorm counselors. In waves they arrive, a couple dozen at a time, until what was a wonderful campus ghost town is magically repopulated, the sidewalks resounding with the pitter-patter of flip-flops.
Sometimes I hate 'em. That may be overstated, but there are time when I want to shake 'em up as if they were asleep--because they are. But then, sometimes, I love 'em so intensely I don't want 'em to leave. After 40 years of teaching, they're family, capable, half the time without knowing it, of turning me into both saint and a serial killer.
But for about a decade already, when I think of them as a generation, I can't help but feel sorry for them. I remember signing a check for the second semester of my senior year--May, 1970. It was $740 bucks, total--room and board and tuition. In those days, a kid could work a good job in the summer, clean toilets or wash dishes during the school year, and walk away with a few bucks in his billfold. No more.
Some kids leave owing tens of thousands of dollars, and U. S. News recently had us--the college where I teach--way up on the list of good buys. We charge a pittance next to a ton of other liberal arts college. We're a steal. Still, some kids leave in debt up to their schweinhocks.
And then there's this mysterious demographic development. Lo and behold, their generation is moving back home in droves, postponing the battery of traditional rituals--marriage, first jobs, home buying--that earlier generations have undertaken post-college. Instead, they're going home, eating Mom's cookies, and holing up in their bedrooms with their iPads. And nobody knows why.
One of the most e-mailed stories from yesterday's New York Times held forth on the profound mystery that's occuring all around and has absolutely nothing to do with our present economic crisis. Twenty-somethings simply don't "grow up," at least not in any traditional meaning of that phrase. They hang around. They don't engage. They don't get moving. They don't marry. They don't get a job. They have no clue where the starting line is.
Meanwhile, last week, when a high school kid and her parents stopped up in the English Department while scouting for colleges, the first question she asked--probably at her parents' prompting--was "But what can I do with an English major?" We hear that question ALL THE TIME.
When they're paying umpteen thousand dollars for an education, they'd like to know, please, if it's possible for them somehow, four years later, to pay it back. I understand that. And our standard answer--and it's a good one--is "If you can write, you can do anything." Which to them is really like saying you can't do anything at all.
Yesterday, I sat through a faculty in-service that just about slayed me. Of course, no teacher as old as I am should be required to attend such annual dopeyness; old farts should earn some parole at least. Anyway, the in-service had to do entirely with numbers--how to crunch them and where to put them, and why everyone must create websites, etc.--all of this driven by the most dreaded word in education, "assessment." Sure, it's more than four letters, but I'd be hard-pressed to find a word more slimy. Grades, you see, don't mean anything anymore. You've got to prove your worth by cold hard facts lest the lawyers come in a sue for false advertising, I guess.
This is how it works. Administrators attend exciting conferences, then come back buzzing with new ideas about how I should be doing work that will make their jobs easier. It's very simple.
Don't get me started.
Anyway, higher ed is all about numbers these days, and it's all about recruitment, and it's all about marketing, because at a small college like this one, it's all warm body count. Higher education has morphed into business, a business in which my first love, the humanities, are simply dying. Of what economic use, pray tell, is Ralph Waldo Emerson? How's Abraham Kuyper going to help me get a job? He's dead.
We're professional these days, offering new and sure-thing professional training, like a tech school with a social calendar, because. . .well, because the students are paying mega-bucks for an education from which they want a whole lot more than transcendentalism. They want jobs. Hence, "But what can I do with an English major?"
But then there's this, from yesterday's Times:
The 20s are a black box, and there is a lot of churning in there. One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch [emphasis mine, by the way]. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation.
Here's the pinch they're in, and remember I started this rant by saying I felt sorry for them. The fact is, they demand an education that will train them for a job many of them won't take. In higher education today we're asked to be vastly more pre-professional because students demand job training, even though many of them are at least a decade away from making that kind of major decision, a decision which, often as not, brings them into a workplace that's tangentially related, at best, to the degree they attained in college. Go figure.
It's a frickin' mess, is what it is, and that's why I feel sorry for them. Here they come, soon to unload thousands of dollars for an education that's doing everything it can to sweep philosophy and history and literature under the blasted rug so they can find a career. Yet, when they graduate, millions of them don't go there. They go home. They go to Korea and teach English. They want like mad to stay in the youth culture. They don't take the jobs they claim to want. They don't know what they want, and it's costing them an arm and a leg.
That's why I feel sorry for them. Poor kids.
And, here's the real rub. When they sit in your office and talk, most of them don't have a clue about any of this. In some ways, they're just kids, dumb as sheep, even the smart ones.
Anyway, they're here. And my syllabi are still in shambles.
At least our wretched in-service assessment is history--we finished it yesterday afternoon, dispatched with blinding speed so we could get back to the real work of trying our best to figure out how to make what happens in the classroom, day to day, worth their time and ours. Thank goodness, the administrators are back in their fortress. I think we got our ducks in a row.
Now if we could only figure out what to do with the sheep.
You can read the NY Times article at