Education, the Real World, and the Millennials

It’s always interesting to see how educational policies play out in the real world, especially when complaints come from a 32-year-old Generation X-er, like Mayra Jimenez, co-founder of the designer swimwear company, The Orchid Boutique.  In a recent article in Inc., she listed five “rants” about the lack of work ethic among her slightly younger employees, the under-30 “Millennials.” 

Education bureaucrats tout preparing workers for the “21st century global economy.”  But instead of helping students improve their knowledge and skill levels, their policies seem to do more to prolong adolescence and lead to the very behaviors that Ms. Jimenez “rants” about.  

Here are Ms. Jimenez’s five rants followed by my observations:

#1.“They are cocky.”  Ms. Jimenez complains that once elevated to positions like “assistant buyers,” her employees treat bosses, clients, and other employees in a condescending manner.  They do things Ms. Jimenez would never have dreamed of doing to her “superiors.”

Ms. Jimenez may not know that in the minds of Millennials, “superiors” or “superiority” is equated with outmoded notions from the Dark Ages because this is the view of history they have been taught.  Their teachers, who consider themselves similarly more advanced than the school marms or professors of old, have rejected authoritarianism and act as “facilitators” who nurture the creative abilities of each of their charges.  Modern educational theory is opposed to the idea that students are in any way inferior. That explains a frequent complaint on my and “old school” colleagues’ end-of-the-semester evaluations: “The professor thinks she knows more than we do.”

Such ego-grooming presents challenges for college instructors.  At a teaching workshop at a community college where I used to teach, we were advised that Millennials expect justification for every task and grade assigned. They’ve been told not only that they’re all above average, but that they harbor infinite potential for creativity and “leadership.” 

#2.“They take things for granted.”  Millennials do not expect to pay their dues or do menial tasks in their entry-level jobs, observes Ms. Jimenez. 

This is a natural result of #1 above. How can someone who is a “leader” be expected to fetch coffee?  How can someone who has been groomed to have high self-esteem expect to take orders?  This is the generation whose teachers have been told that comments in red ink can crush sensitive souls.

Whenever I fill out a recommendation form for a college freshman, I am asked to evaluate him on his “leadership abilities.”  Consider some of the administrative positions in our colleges that revolve around students. They have names like “Director of Student Leadership and Engagement” and “Director of Student Involvement and First-Year Class Director.” With campuses full of such highly paid personnel devoted to nurturing “leaders,” why would an entry-level employee expect anything other than a Club Med experience? 

#3.“They think they’re exempt from rules.”  Ms. Jimenez cites sloppiness in obtaining answers and in grammar in emails among the troubles with her workers. 

That is because they have largely been exempt from rules! Teachers have been told now for a least a couple decades to ignore spelling and grammatical errors in student writing.  One of the best-known and established composition scholars, Peter Elbow, at last year’s meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, declared that the grammar we internalize as four-year-olds is “good enough” for the writing being done today. 

The same goes for math, where teachers are told not to get hung up so much on “correct” answers as on the “process,” and to give credit there. As I’ve observed on our local educational channel, elementary school students are not required to sit up straight at desks, but are encouraged to mill around, work “collaboratively,” and write in journals sitting on the floor as if they were at home in their pajamas. 

In fact, today many college students arrive in class clothed in t-shirts, flip-flops, and pajama bottoms. Naturally, many find even workplace dress requirements offensive.

#4.“They don’t follow through.”  They don’t finish tasks, or even seem to think that it is their responsibility to keep track of their own assignments, Ms. Jimenez observes.

Well, they’ve never really had to do time management—as in “your 15-page research paper is due in two weeks.” Read a typical lesson plan to see how their time is micromanaged.

For example, a “[Common] Core-Aligned Task” devised by New York City educators–for eleventh- and twelfth-graders–described as “Building reading comprehension,” involves “extracting and analyzing relevant information from [Depression-era] ‘Migrant Mother’ photos.” 

The teacher is instructed to “Place students in pairs or trios” and then have the students spend “at least ten minutes looking closely at the sequence of images” and then “ask them to infer what was selected and what was deflected from earlier photos, when making the final photo.” (Such dumbed-down “reading” exercises now enter the college classroom, as evidenced by scholarship on “visual rhetoric,” “film studies,” and “graphic novels.”)  

When I looked at the curricula produced by Public Broadcasting for a recent report, I was struck by how much tasks were broken down. Research for a major high school history project was to be conducted in only 45 minutes, on the Internet, and in groups. At the community college, we too were encouraged to put students into groups, and to allow them to hand in multiple drafts of papers. 

When tasks are so broken down, with hands held along the way until the final consequence of grade (and even then with the fallback of “extra credit”) and when tasks and thinking itself are shared with peers in a group, how can we expect graduates to have the discipline to “follow through”?  Ms. Jimenez’s employees have had little or no experience with such old-fashioned solitary assignments as long research papers written and rewritten until perfectly organized, punctuated, and spelled.  (See #3 above.)

#5.“They don’t want to pay their dues.”  Working your way up does not apply to Millennials, who expect to earn high salaries doing glamorous tasks immediately. That too is a consequence of their education.

Instead of being asked to read long books (with no pictures), students watch “documentaries” or “webisodes,” or play interactive games, or “read” photos.  The facilitator and peer group then let them know what the right attitudes are (“tolerance,” “empathy,” “collaboration,” “global citizenship”).  After a short time they are then asked to engage in “critical thinking” (collaboratively) to come up with an answer for global warming, poverty, crime, the threat of nuclear war, prejudice and hate, and the Middle East conflict. They regard themselves as instant experts!

We are not doing our students—much less their future employers–any favors with all of the fashionable ego-stroking pedagogy. Perhaps business owners like Ms. Jimenez should support efforts to undo the educational policies that have put us into this situation.