Writing in Psychology Today, Professor Peter Gray notes that today’s college students are increasingly needy, emotionally fragile, and lacking in “resilience” and “grit.” Many of them are simply unprepared for college in terms of emotional maturity. The problem is getting so bad that it’s becoming a burden for professors, and threatening to undermine the mission of the university.
[W]e learned that emergency calls to Counseling had more than doubled over the past five years. Students are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life. Recent examples mentioned included a student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a “bitch” and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment. The latter two also called the police, who kindly arrived and set a mousetrap for them.
More evidence also that we have too many cops.
For the professor, these students are taking the fun out of teaching.
Faculty at the meetings noted that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when it comes to grading. Some said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices. Many students, they said, now view a C, or sometimes even a B, as failure, and they interpret such “failure” as the end of the world. Faculty also noted an increased tendency for students to blame them (the faculty) for low grades—they weren’t explicit enough in telling the students just what the test would cover or just what would distinguish a good paper from a bad one. They described an increased tendency to see a poor grade as reason to complain rather than as reason to study more, or more effectively.
Some campus meetings attended by Prof. Gray produced the following distressing points.
Less resilient and needy students have shaped the landscape for faculty in that they are expected to do more handholding, lower their academic standards, and not challenge students too much.
There is a sense of helplessness among the faculty. Many faculty members expressed their frustration with the current situation. There were few ideas about what we could do as an institution to address the issue.
Students are afraid to fail; they do not take risks; they need to be certain about things. For many of them, failure is seen as catastrophic and unacceptable. External measures of success are more important than learning and autonomous development.
Faculty, particularly young faculty members, feel pressured to accede to student wishes lest they get low teacher ratings from their students. Students email about trivial things and expect prompt replies.
Failure and struggle need to be normalized. Students are very uncomfortable in not being right. They want to re-do papers to undo their earlier mistakes. We have to normalize being wrong and learning from one’s errors.
How did we get ourselves into this fine mess? Prof. Gray has a plausible explanation: the ‘helicopter society.’
“[H]elicopter parenting really is at the core of the problem. But I don’t blame parents, or certainly not just parents. Parents are in some ways victims of larger forces in society—victims of the continuous exhortations from “experts” about the dangers of letting kids be, victims of the increased power of the school system and the schooling mentality that says kids develop best when carefully guided and supervised by adults, and victims of increased legal and social sanctions for allowing kids into public spaces without adult accompaniment. We have become, unfortunately, a “helicopter society.”
Back in 2004, Michael Barone published a book called Hard America, Soft America. Barone pointed out that America produces the most incompetent 18-year-olds, but the most competent 30-year-olds, in the world. All these college kids are still closer to 18 than to 30. Hopefully, by 30 they’ll have grown up. Otherwise, this country is in big trouble.