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Work ethic: sic transit gloria mundi?

How did it ever get this bad?

Every year we get a crop of new students. By and large, and modulo some small drift, they aren't smarter or dumber than the previous year's cohort. We start training them, advise them (insofar as we may) on taking courses and doing projects, we get a finished crop that is, one hopes, competent at some aspects of computer science.

Since about three years ago, though, I'm starting to see a severe disconnect between learning and reading. Apathy is at record levels. Laziness sems worse; background, weak. What's worse, there's that same "assiduously anti-intellectual" stance on the part of just a few people that I once attributed to a swing of the socially liberal/conservative pendulum.

The truth of the matter, though, is that I'd be hard pressed to explain to an alien visitor who had last come here a couple of decades ago what is going on right now.

Any ideas? (Your mileage may vary.)



( 51 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 25th, 2006 08:23 am (UTC)
Could it just be that you're three years older, three years grumpier? :D

I've been out of uni too long I think, and all of my younger friends are as bright and inquisitive as I was . . .
Sep. 25th, 2006 08:50 am (UTC)
But that's biased sampling - of course they are bright and inquisitive, otherwise they wouldn't be your friends! ;] (but yes, I am serious)
You are right, miss - banazir - Sep. 25th, 2006 08:53 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dorukai - Sep. 26th, 2006 12:33 am (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 25th, 2006 08:33 am (UTC)
I've just gotten up and I'm very very sleepy, but I'll post with this before I forget, just don't expect it to be very eloquent.

Something that surprised me is that I see this more in Norway than I did in Hungary - a lot more, in fact! People here are a lot less expected to do extracurricular work, and when I tell them I have a grant, which means people pay me to do extracurricular work (yes, I have to explain), I get these dumb stares. And if I could count the times I hear "but that's so much work" when people learn of my class schedule, I would be rich!

I think that's true of a sizable portion of international students here, too, not just Norwegians, which makes me wonder - what were they used to doing at their former universities?!

(and "background" is a disaster, but that's mostly due to bad programs at people's former universities - I have a classmate who has an MA degree in English but never heard of anything resembling modern English syntax, be it the Chomskyan or the not so Chomskyan variety. Unfortunately, because of this, classes have fast deteriorated into really basic intro classes, and I end up sitting there reading Strugatsky novels on my laptop, because I have to attend - classes are small so my absence would be conspicious - but I don't hear much of interest. But I should reach proficiency in advanced syntax, not in Soviet science fiction... well, I could read syntax papers, but those would interfere with what I hear, which I still need to pay some little attention to, just so that I know that I can keep on reading. And even this will be used to get money, since I write book reviews for Galaktika, so any SF reading can be justified ;] I'll never review these books, because they were released ages ago, but people expect me to be familiar with them.)

This is kind of surprising, because I know that after they've finished university, Hungarians have this expectation that they don't need to work at their workplaces. But while still students, they still do more... apparently this is because they are expected to. Here, students are expected to do their coursework and that's it, and the coursework itself is a lot less than it'd be at Hungarian universities. And what they do in their copious spare time... well, one of my neighbors hangs out with friends all the time, she sleeps over all the time or has someone/s sleep over, and my other neighbor is frantically trying to learn English (he's not a good example because most people here speak English) and keep up with his classes that are held in English. I just discussed this with him yesterday, and he told me he thought he'd die for the first two weeks, he wanted to go home, he was completely desperate - but now that he's getting used to the English, he realized that the program itself wasn't really hard in fact, it just seemed hard because of the language barrier.

Sorry, kind of rambling (I know I should've slept more!)
Sep. 25th, 2006 04:09 pm (UTC)
This reminded me heavily of my experience in a supposedly-prestigious Masters program in International Affairs in the early 90s -

I'd had a BA in political science from a mediocre program, and in deciding to go to grad school, spent a year or so in what I considered remedial reading - some middling-advanced texts in the field and some original sources.

When I got into the program, I discovered that for US students, it was essentially a remedial BA in political science for students who either had majored in something far afield or who came from worse programs than mine, and for international students, it was basically a fraternity, a place to network for two years.

And the texts? All the stuff I'd read on my own.

Worst $80k I ever spent, to put it mildly!
(no subject) - prezzey - Sep. 25th, 2006 10:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kaseido - Sep. 26th, 2006 12:04 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tamf - Sep. 25th, 2006 08:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - prezzey - Sep. 25th, 2006 10:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tamf - Sep. 26th, 2006 05:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 25th, 2006 10:51 am (UTC)
I've always wondered why anti-intellectual students bother *getting* higher education. I mean, I ran into them myself in college, I just don't get it.
Sep. 25th, 2006 02:45 pm (UTC)
The best turn of phrase I've heard is that college is, to some, "an opportunity to pledge a fraternity."
(no subject) - prezzey - Sep. 25th, 2006 10:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 25th, 2006 02:49 pm (UTC)
two words: Johnathan Kozol
Sep. 25th, 2006 04:13 pm (UTC)
I've found some variants on that: my students tend to be reasonably bright, but utterly untainted by education. The average test at around the 10th percentile in both Math and English, and largely because they've just never seen the high-school level material.

The biggest oddity is that these people don't doubt in the least that they'll go on to the very top graduate schools: they're getting A+es in their undergraduate work, and they've been told all their lives how "special" they are. They're shocked and furious to find out that they're expected to *demonstrate* skills...
Sep. 25th, 2006 07:11 pm (UTC)
My impression is that primary education is producing students with "self esteem" that feel that their abilities and skills deserve much more praise than the rest of the world is willing to give.

I put self esteem in quotes because true self esteem, based on one of the founders of the movement in the 70s (can't remember reference, too lazy to dig it out) said that high self esteem happens when a person's self analysis is congruent with reality. Instead, students coming out of highschool think they are talented because they get good grades, not because of real skills learned.

The self esteem movement backfired in this respect.
(no subject) - prezzey - Sep. 25th, 2006 10:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kaseido - Sep. 26th, 2006 12:06 am (UTC) - Expand
Clarification - banazir - Sep. 25th, 2006 08:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Clarification - kaseido - Sep. 26th, 2006 12:00 am (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 25th, 2006 04:52 pm (UTC)
The internet is so distracting that people are slowly losing the attention span required to sit down and enjoy a book.
Sep. 25th, 2006 04:56 pm (UTC)
I'm actually of a mixed mind on this point. On one hand, one should utterly be prepared for "a life of the mind" if one is to pursue graduate studies. One must read broadly and deeply. It is no doubt that these students are doing themselves a grave disservice.

But, on the other hand, America has a great intellectual tradition of pragmatism. Recently, I was trying to have a discussion with someone on the other side of the Atlantic about the new role that "the network" is playing within a cultural understanding of friendship, and they wouldn't (among other behaviors) stop randomly quoting C.S. Lewis and then refuting those points, as if I had just made them. This was clearly C.S. Lewis and others as a stand-in "for the modernist tradition". I couldn't make any headway about trying to find a consensus throughout all of the baggage that was invoked. It's my opinion that being able to think independent of traditions that makes the best students able to do great original work. A student who learns to defend themselves with citations against reason and practical goals is likely more worthless than the simplest able lab assistant.
Sep. 25th, 2006 05:53 pm (UTC)
I've heard that my generation (it's odd associating myself with the current crop of 18 year olds, but only five years separate them from me) is moving away from the "traditional" pattern of go to school, get good grades, land a good job, and work five days a week with all your hopes placed in a 401(k). The social roots of this postulated trend are hard to skein out from the wealth of possible factors. One editorialist suggested it had to do with watching parents work and stress and invest far too much time and energy into more or less thankless labor - that the "for the good of the company" mentality is wearing thin in the hearts of today's up-and-coming young adults. It might be a plausible leap to connect this with increasing disinterest in formal intellectual pursuits, and more emphasis on alternative freelance activities.

In the end, though, I don't have the perspective or the reading to be able to venture more than a guess.
Sep. 25th, 2006 06:25 pm (UTC)
I believe the best I've heard the traditional pattern described is "get a good job, get lots of stuff, impress the neighbors, have kids, drop dead", but most succinctly as "work, buy, breed, die".
Sep. 25th, 2006 07:32 pm (UTC)
", I'm starting to see a severe disconnect between learning and reading. Apathy is at record levels. Laziness sems worse; background, weak. What's worse, there's that same "assiduously anti-intellectual" stance on the part of just a few people that I once attributed to a swing of the socially liberal/conservative pendulum."
I was really impressed by how cognitive psychology dealt with actualites so well, not getting swept away with generalizations and abstractions the way I saw happening with sociology.

Sadly (catastrophically?) part of the syndrome is that far more people are interested in discussing the symptoms than in synthesizing a solution. It's Kafkaesque.
Sep. 26th, 2006 02:27 pm (UTC)
I've been getting interested in cognitive psych. Do you have any citations you'd like to direct me at?
Ellis and Young, Stein and Meredith - banazir - Sep. 26th, 2006 03:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Ellis and Young, Stein and Meredith - mapjunkie - Sep. 26th, 2006 03:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hfx_ben - Sep. 26th, 2006 03:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mapjunkie - Sep. 26th, 2006 04:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hfx_ben - Sep. 26th, 2006 06:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mapjunkie - Sep. 26th, 2006 06:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hfx_ben - Sep. 26th, 2006 07:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mapjunkie - Sep. 26th, 2006 07:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hfx_ben - Sep. 26th, 2006 07:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mapjunkie - Sep. 26th, 2006 07:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hfx_ben - Sep. 26th, 2006 07:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mapjunkie - Sep. 26th, 2006 07:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hfx_ben - Sep. 26th, 2006 08:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mapjunkie - Sep. 26th, 2006 09:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mapjunkie - Sep. 26th, 2006 06:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hfx_ben - Sep. 26th, 2006 07:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mapjunkie - Sep. 26th, 2006 07:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hfx_ben - Sep. 26th, 2006 07:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 25th, 2006 09:11 pm (UTC)
My opinion? Higher education is changing, as it's done a number of times before. With 50% of the population going to university, there's bound to be a shift in what they're looking for. That's what you're seeing. We still have about the same number of motivated youngsters we had some years ago. The difference is that they're no longer the only ones going to university.

Out here in Blighty we say that the result of all this is that most students today want a degree, not an education. That's a cliché, but there's some truth in it. The government itself, in White Papers on higher education, talks about the benefits of higher education to students in terms of skills-acquisition and personality development. You'll see nary a word about "fostering scholarship" because it's not what higher education is about any more. Even research is supposed to produce what industry wants and what the economy needs - it's not just about the pursuit of knowledge.

As universities increasingly start to see themselves as sellers of a particular service fighting to stay afloat in a cutthroat market, it becomes increasingly apparent that our role is to provide the services the students want, not what we think they ought to want. I expect to see a split in the university sector over the next few years, with a few elite universities still sticking to the old sort of higher education and the rest becoming a sort of slick teaching shop.

And that concludes my start-of-term ruminations.
Sep. 26th, 2006 07:20 am (UTC)
Children aren't expected to have a work ethic. I was outside with my son and daughter building a flower bed when a friend of my drove by, rolled down the window, and asked if I was paying them to help me. This flabbergasted me. I told her that we were a family, and we did chores together. This was a novel concept to her.

Many children don't have to do chores around the house. They don't have to get a job in order to buy that Ipod they've been wanting. Mom and Dad buy them everything they want. High schoolers drive to school in brand new cars their parents bought them. Everything is handed to them, and they come to expect life to be easy and cater to them.

My son is taking 21 credit hours this semester. He has to manage his time well. He works construction during the summer and is paying for his college education.

Our daughter has had a job since she was 15. She, too, is paying for her college education. Trust me, both my offspring show up for class because they have a vested interest.

So, work ethic is one part of your equation. I agree with those who have talked about the self esteem issue, also. When children are repeatedly told that their mediocre work is brilliant, why shouldn't they be shocked when they learn the truth?

Also, it is amazing how very little is expected from our high schoolers in many classes. I don't want to be unkind to teachers, because we have many teachers in our family, and they do the best they can in a difficult situation. They spend almost as much time in discipline as they do instruction. Troublemakers and disruptive students put learning on the back burner.

There seems to be a great disconnect between a student's desires for the future (mansion, Ferrari, and hot boyfriend/girlfriend) and how they are going to accomplish those dreams. Many students seem to think that right after graduating from high school, they will be placed in the position of CEO for a Fortune 500 company. The reality is more likely that they'll be placed in the drive through of some fast food place.
Sep. 26th, 2006 04:37 pm (UTC)
Could you also comment the roles you see for academic pursuits, scholarship, and graduate studies?
(no subject) - bojojoti - Sep. 27th, 2006 05:55 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mapjunkie - Sep. 27th, 2006 12:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mapjunkie - Sep. 27th, 2006 01:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
( 51 comments — Leave a comment )

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