A New (but Old) Way of Reaching Today’s Students

Editor’s note: Sarah Adams is an assistant professor of English at Azusa Pacific University.

 Current surveys tell us that managers and teachers find the millennial generation, born between 1982 and 2000, harder to work with than any previous generation. The primary reason is that these young people have different motives and expectations than their predecessors.

These are the “narcissists” according to San Diego State professor Jean Twenge and the “dumbest generation” according to Emory professor Mark Bauerlein. They are the children who played soccer without scores because scoring would make the losers feel bad and who received trophies simply for participating. “This is a generation that hasn’t been allowed to fail a whole lot, so failure is going to feel pretty bad when it happens,” write Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman, authors of The M-Factor.

Unlike previous generations, which relished power, this one seems to want greater fulfillment—“achievement” and “affiliation,” according to Nicole Borges and others, writing in Medical Education. Anecdotal evidence from my own and fellow faculty members’ experience echoes those findings. As a Generation X-er myself, I was initially baffled when my students would protest a poor grade on the grounds that “I really, really tried.”  More than one of my colleagues confirms that Millennials read “correction” as “personal rejection.”  They are hurt and confused by poor grades rather than challenged.

Even when they join the work force, this generation is also unlike others. Eddy S.W. Ng, Linda Schweitzer, and Sean T. Lyons wrote in the Journal of Business and Psychology, “Millennials placed the greatest importance on individualistic aspects of a job.” They increasingly make life choices based on what will “help them to lead more purposeful and meaningful lives.”

In order to attract and motivate this new generation, faculty are under pressure to find new teaching techniques, new classroom management approaches, and new systems of rewards. One article suggests that the gold star charts used by parents for tracking chores and homework could be used to motivate adult Millennials. Indeed, a colleague of mine finds that her 18-21-year-old students have doubled the number of drafts they are willing to do on a paper in order to win a sticker.

But current educational approaches do not serve these students very well. Modern education has moved away from the liberal arts model toward a job-skills-based model. For-profit universities such as DeVry and the University of Phoenix stress that students need only take job-relevant classes. Traditional liberal arts colleges are following this path, cutting down their core curricula to give students in “professional” programs, such as business and nursing, more time for their majors. Abstract subject areas, such as philosophy, are moving to the periphery of curricula because they are perceived as unmarketable.

This model fails millennial students on two levels. First, they find it impersonal, bereft of the internal meaning and personal satisfaction that drives them. Second, it doesn’t actually prepare students for the real world. Employers have complained for over a decade that college graduates lack basic logic and communication skills. They also lack the ability to see connections between different areas of knowledge, perceptions that are necessary for innovative thinking.

Ironic as it may seem, the truly ancient view of the liberal arts may speak best and most deeply to the Millennials. I can’t bring myself to give out stickers. However, I am a medieval scholar. Although my classes don’t cover all seven of the liberal arts, I’ve applied their underlying sensibilities to my classes, particularly the dialogic, meaning-centered approach to knowledge. And students love it.

The foundation of traditional liberal arts comes from Martianus Capella, the fifth-century Roman author of an allegory in which Mercury marries Philologia. At her wedding, Philologia is served by seven slaves: Grammar, Dialectics, Rhetoric, Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy, and Harmony. The allegory’s point is that a truly great mind (Mercury, messenger of the gods) will love knowledge (Philologia). For Capella, “knowledge” meant not just information, but wisdom. The seven slaves, representing seven distinct areas of study, comprised all that an upper-class Roman would need to be wise.

Medieval universities modeled their curricula on these seven, dividing them into the Trivium and the Quadrivium. Theology replaced Philologia to emphasize the subordination of human understanding to God-given revelation, but the seven areas of study remained as a unified means by which to understand the world and achieve wisdom.

At first glance, these ancient divisions may seem utterly alien to Millennials and impractical for the twenty-first century. However, considered more broadly, they speak directly to the Milliennials’ deepest concerns (and address their future bosses’ demands as well).

The liberal arts model treats all areas of study as leading toward wisdom. Thus, all subject areas (not just Business Ethics 101) address the questions “How should I live my life?” and “What are my obligations toward my fellow man and how can I fulfill them?” Many of the world’s problems (poverty, disease, the environment) are not a single problem, but a complex web of factors. The liberal arts offer the Millennials a systematic, yet intertwined, approach to the social ills they long to solve.

Furthermore, this approach to knowledge is inherently relational—it treats areas of knowledge as interrelated, rather than sharply divided into unrelated disciplines. It also encourages application of knowledge to human relationships. Thus, it lends itself to dialogue in the classroom. Millennials already live their lives as an ongoing dialogue, constantly updating each other via text messages, blog posts, shared links, and Facebook updates. What the constant push for more technology-oriented classrooms misses is that it is the dialogue, not the technology, that Millennials truly value.

Millennials have been derided for the way they crave novelty, stimulation, and interaction with cultures outside their normal experience. But this drive for novelty can translate into a strong curiosity about other peoples and their cultures. Indeed, the very alienness of the classical liberal arts may help attract Millennials, if academia has the sense to present it correctly. For most Millennials the ideas of the past, especially the ancient past, are more novel than the thought of life on other planets.

Finally, whether ruled by Philologia or Theology, the liberal arts offer academic study as the search for meaning in life. In “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Dorothy Sayers suggested that we reinstate the Trivium and Quadrivium as the curriculum for primary and secondary schools. For the college-aged Millennials, I think we should take a slightly more metaphorical approach. It is the liberal arts’ framework for approaching knowledge, rather than strict use of the seven subjects, that will speak to Millennials.

The first three disciplines, the Trivium, all deal with linguistic mastery because language allows vague impressions to be processed, articulated and communicated as complex ideas. Thus meaning cannot be accessed or shared without language. Grammar covers language’s mechanics, how to translate ideas into coherent words. Rhetoric deals with style, or the ability to make words eloquent and moving. And Dialectic is logic, the ability to parse competing claims and ideas so that eloquent rhetoric cannot hide poor ideas. The Trivium makes communication foundational to the process of finding meaning.

The Quadrivium is also grounded in the search for meaning. Though it divides the physical world into distinct subjects, each subject asks “Why is this information significant? What does it say about my role in the universe?” The four subjects may seem oddly limited for a twenty-first century university, but broadly understood they still represent the core knowledge that Millennials need and the meaningful life they crave.

The Quadrivium divides the study of the physical world into theoretical and applied math (arithmetic and geometry), science (astronomy), and art (music). As broad categories of learning, these are still the foundational subjects students need for a well-rounded understanding of the world. Modern curricula may use different terminology, but the areas of knowledge are still essentially the same. For example, Millennials may take calculus and statistics, but they are still studying math in its theoretical and applied forms.

The physical sciences have been subdivided into many more areas than astronomy, but the need to understand the mechanics of the universe remains.

What the Quadrivium model brings to this form of study is the philosophical and ethical questions that give knowledge meaning and purpose. The liberal arts don’t merely expect students to absorb a certain set of facts in each area. For example, music, to medieval scholars, was not just mastery of a scale. Music, and other arts, were ways of exploring and expressing the human soul, of communicating with God and one’s fellow man. Astronomy did not just ask “what is a star made of?” but “does the immensity of space imply my relative significance in the universe? The liberal arts expect students to continually ask “What does this information mean? What does it tell me about being human?”

Taken alone, these subjects might break down into mere mechanistic study. But taken as a whole, the liberal arts are a means for examining the world in order to determine if there is such a thing as meaning and, if so, where it lies.

In sum, the current academic mode doesn’t attract millennial students. But I contend that the Millennials might well flock to class if classes were a dialogue between today’s students and faculty and many other bright minds who, in different ways and different times, tried to find meaning, to live well, and do good to others. If both our curriculum and our teaching style were modeled on the Trivium and the Quadrivium, with allowance for modern advances in knowledge, students would find in the classroom what they seek in their lives. Then they would write and rewrite their papers for the reward of meaning, and not just for stickers.