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Bill Tierney

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Twelve Inconvenient Truths—IV

*This post is the fourth in a series on Richard Vedder’s Twelve Inconvenient Truths About Higher Education.

Here’s a familiar libel about students:

College Students Work and Learn Little, Party Hard

“A good case can be made,” he tells us, “that college is increasingly a sort of country club with elaborate recreational and living facilities, but also with a curious mix of academics and hedonistic excesses where booze, drugs, and sex claim at least equal time with academic studies.”

The portrait, then, is that our students all populate an Animal House where their libidinal urges run wild. Again, Vedder is talking about what is now a subset of academe. Most of our students are part-time working adults. They have families and hold a job.

But even his portrait of full-time traditionally aged students is askew for in his world those who are at fault here are the students. That’s incorrect. Sure, students at residential colleges are going to do stupid things and a few of them are getting drunk or smoking too much weed. (I’m sure Professor Vedder never did that, just like Professor Tierney, too …) Let’s also acknowledge that the subset of the subset that I know best is mostly poor first-generation students. These are the ones who hold two jobs, give part of their money to their mom to help pay the rent, skip lunch to save money, work on the weekend, and ride the bus around town because they can’t afford a car.

The problem with Vedder’s point is that he blames the students and I don’t see it that way. Should students study more? Yes. Should students be held to more rigorous standards? Yes. Should students have more writing and analytical problem solving to do? Yes. But the problem here is not that students blow things off. It’s that they are not held to high enough standards. The students I work with almost always rise to the high expectations I have for them—but I have to elucidate what those standards are, and then I have to create a framework that enables them to reach those goals. The problem is not that we’ve got a bunch of sex-crazed students who are trying to get out of work. In fact, they all want jobs and they will do whatever it takes to get a job. They largely do what they are told—we just don’t tell them to do very much. The problem is not with the students; it’s with the postsecondary sector.

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