Students Who Don’t Study

American discussions of education often veer over into utopian fantasy, and one of the commonest delusions is that nearly every young person wants to be educated. The reality is quite different. 

Nearly every young person wants the qualifications that offer access to well paid work, and will do as much as it takes to get them.  But most youngsters do not care deeply about education for its own sake, especially if getting it requires long hours of solitary, disciplined study.  Learning is hard, often joyless, and for centuries was understood to be so alien to youngsters’ inclinations that it had to be reinforced with frequent beatings. 

Now we indulge the idea that not just basic literacy but a high level of formal education is for everyone, and that they will appreciate it.

Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, a pair of California economics professors, recently put a dent in that idea.  They wrote a convincing paper, “Leisure College, USA”   showing that undergraduates today study far less than their predecessors in the 1960s and 1970s.  In 1961 the average student did 24 hours’ academic work outside of class every week. Now it’s down to around 14. (A version of the paper has been accepted by the Review of Economics and Statistics.)

Other studies have shown that during the same years, average college grades have risen steeply.  Any freshman who puts the two curves together and meditates on their significance for his or her future is going to find it hard to suppress a grin.  It’s never been easier to get an A, and it’s never required so few hours’ study!

The implications are clear enough.  Students will do what they’re obliged to do, and will leave it at that.  They have never had such a range of attractive alternative activities within reach, nor so much money, nor such access to one-another.  Most of them, incidentally, are well meaning and cooperative, but they share the age-old propensity to procrastinate.  If they start late on researching a paper but end up with an A, they’ll be sure to start late on researching the next one, with renewed confidence.

Why the decline in hours of solo study and the rise in grades?  Because professors have become less demanding.  Many college teachers say that rigorous classes are unpopular and will lead to negative student evaluations, which they can’t afford when they lack tenure.  Those at research universities feel tempted to go light on the teaching because it will leave them more time for the research and writing which lead to promotion.  In other words, they claim that the entire system in which they work is structurally dysfunctional.

Those claims are half believable.  Anyone who has tried to juggle the demands of a new assistant professorship with those of raising a young child and trying to get a first book published is likely to sympathize. 

On the other hand, the claims are half unbelievable.  Is it really the case that the best publications come from the softest teachers, and that offering a less demanding curriculum corresponds to a longer c.v. and more rapid promotion?  No.  When I think about the professors I know, the best researchers and writers are just about always the best teachers too.  We live in a world brimming with inequality, and this is one of the ways it shows itself.

Studies like Babcock and Marks’s deal in gross statistics, and cannot say much about variation at particular campuses.  To me that’s the outstanding reality of life at a contemporary university.  Some professors are conscientious teachers who require a lot from their students, beginning on day one of the semester, and hold the line on grading without sacrificing their own scholarship.  Students respect them, recognize that they can’t skimp on the hard work and long hours, and write evaluations that say, in effect: “She was tough but fair, and in the long run we benefited from her rigor.” 

Other profs, by contrast, are slack teachers and slack researchers too.  They gradually go limp after getting tenure, then coast along year after year, not bad enough to be guilty of professional misconduct but not good enough to enrich or vivify the university.  Their students write evaluations that say they were easy, and that the courses were OK.

For five years I was director of the Center for Teaching and Curriculum at Emory University, a job that gave me plenty of scope to watch different professors at work and to talk with plenty of undergraduates.  The students are the real experts on variation among faculty members because they experience it first hand every semester.  Many of them told me: “When I’m planning my semester, I always take at least one easy class, one in which I know I’m going to get a good grade however little work I do, so that I can concentrate more on the tough courses.”  I would ask: “Do you resent the professors in the tough courses, and admire the professors in the easy ones?”  That question would elicit a puzzled stare and the remark: “No; other way round.”

We all have feet of clay.  We seek ways to accommodate our weaknesses, but we certainly don’t love ourselves for doing so.  Neither do we love the enablers who permit us to get away with it.  On the contrary, getting something for nothing leaves a sour aftertaste.  What we want, when we’re sober and upright, is a tough challenge and the feeling, after meeting that challenge, of a job well done.

Now back to my original point; higher education is hard, and it’s not for everyone.  One of the biggest changes since 1961 is the sheer growth of higher education.  There are far more students than ever before and an ever-increasing percentage of each generation is going to college.  Sadly, they are there not because they love learning but because they want qualifications.  Going through the educational motions has become the way to get those qualifications. 

The implications of “Leisure College, USA “are that professors who are serious about education should raise their standards, in the confident knowledge that their students will respect them for it, and that the nation as a whole should moderate its unjustified enthusiasm for universal education.