Engaging the Disengaged Student

College professors yearn for academically interested students—eager young minds that want to grasp new ideas and soak up information. But not many students are like that. Most come to college to get a degree and have fun while doing it.

Faced with such kids and their tiresome questions “what will be on the test?” and “will this count toward the grade?” many faculty members become cynical. They try to weed out weak students or they themselves lose interest—becoming disengaged faculty teaching disengaged students.

Tim Clydesdale, a sociologist at the College of New Jersey and author of The First Year Out (University of Chicago Press), suggests that the problem lies not with the kids but with the expectations for them.

He’s not saying that education should be “dumbed down.” It’s already dumbed down. He is talking about creating new expectations.

“These new expectations should not begin with what educators want students to learn, but rather should begin with helping students identify their interests. . . . “ he writes in his 2007 book. There is a provocative message here, if we can just grasp it.

The backdrop for Clydesdale’s recommendation is a research project patterned after such famous sociological studies as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd and William F. Whyte’s Street Corner Society. Like those, it uses qualitative interviews to explore the culture that individuals live in; in this case the individuals are college-bound teenagers.

Clydesdale’s book is based primarily on a year he spent getting to know 21 students at a large high school in a lower-middle-class suburb in New Jersey. He interviewed them first as seniors and again after their freshman year.

This was not an elite group of kids; going to college is not an elite activity anymore. (Clydesdale says that 76 per cent of high school graduates from families who earn at least $25,000 attend college.) Nor did his interviews reveal many kids who were brilliant, articulate, or intellectually motivated.

He learned that most college-bound teenagers are not ready to do much thinking the first year out. Most “are consumed with managing their daily life and, in particular, with navigating relationships and managing gratifications.”

In fact, they put their minds in a “lockbox,” he says. And that isn’t all they lock up. They also keep “religious, political, civic, socioeconomic, ethnic, and gender identities in a lockbox, too.”

Clydesdale draws a provocative connection between students’ ability to become engaged students and their religious interests. He pays special attention to religious faith, perhaps because he attended Wheaton College, an evangelical college, before getting a Ph.D. at Princeton. The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion helped support his research.

The majority of students he interviewed were “semi-religious.” (He estimates that 85 percent of American teenagers have a positive view of religion, but the involvement is usually shallow.) At college, they don’t abandon their faith entirely, but they put it on hold, just as they do their intellectual side.

Some students do allow themselves to be engaged academically, however. They are the seriously religious students (usually Christian) who attend religious schools, plus the much smaller group of anti-religious teenagers attending secular colleges (and, of course, the tiny group of students who are academically eager in the first place).

Clydesdale finds that seriously religious students, when in compatible surroundings, feel freer to “reflect on their own lives and on their wider environment” than do most freshmen.

To illustrate (this example is not Clydesdale’s): For most teenagers, Aeschylus’s play The Eumenides would be an assignment about which they would have to memorize some facts and “meaning,” perhaps taken from Cliff Notes. But religious students (attending a school that embraces their religion) may be open to exploring how this play addresses the administration of justice. They may even have contemplated issues of justice and retribution on their own and may be ready to learn how past writers grappled with them.

Anti-religious teenagers may also be open to such a discussion. By challenging the Judeo-Christian underpinnings of American culture, they are already “engaged.” As Clydesdale observes, “Strong views on religion, be they positive or negative, appear to be connected with greater openness to intellectual or creative engagement.”

But most students don’t have such strong views and they are busy managing their college lives rather than thinking abstractly. In essence, Clydesdale found that students in their freshman year have “narrowed perspectives.” They are in a self-protective mode and “educators waste their breath if they attempt to challenge these [narrowed perspectives] during their first year out.”

To reach these students, faculty should be doing something different—but what? Clydesdale doesn’t offer many specifics, but he describes how his research changed his own teaching.

First, he raised his expectations for freshmen because his interviews told him that students expect college to be tougher than high school. Second, in his introductory courses, he now starts with “sociological studies of interpersonal relationships” rather than “macrohistorical theories of social order.” He is trying to link to what is on their minds.

His advice is that faculty should help students become more aware of their own interests. Once they do so, faculty can help them apply these interests to academic goals such as improving their “cognitive and communicative skills,” relating their interests to “existing bodies of knowledge,” and applying what they learn in “practical and creative ways.”

More broadly, he wants educators to “focus on what knowledge our graduates retain and what skills they actually use, and work backward to develop a student-centered curriculum that imparts knowledge worth retaining and skills worth developing.”

These recommendations are both lofty and sketchy. But Clydesdale’s overriding message is that most freshmen are not ready to plunge into the intellectual endeavors that many of us view as the heart of college life. If this is the case for most entering students, don’t educators have a responsibility to recognize that and take action?

Jane S. Shaw is the executive vice president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.