American Higher Education: Failing, Entitlement

American higher education is on life support and not doing particularly well. We have a growing consensus emerging from industry and academia alike arguing that the institutions are not serving the needs of students. And clearly from my own experience as well as the experiences shared with me by so many in the last six or seven months it’s not serving the needs of the instructors (permanent, tenured, non-tenured, and contingent) either. There are certainly lots of reasons — a 2010 study of Ivy League Universities found our approach to tenure, reliance on part-time instructors, and crazy bureaucracies suck the life and quality out of higher education.

For me, there are two factors that we don’t talk about in an organized way that are just sucking the life and soul out of higher education — student entitlement and an over-reliance on contingent faculty. Now, before anyone gets their shorts in a wad — I believe that contingent faculty (i.e., adjunct and fixed-term contract folks) do their level best but I just don’t think they are likely to have the same opportunities to develop and execute as effective of a class as a full-time faculty member does. So my adjunct friends, just cool your jets :). However, because of the instability and poor pay, contingent faculty, that need the job, don’t have a chance to be at their best as faculty members. The adjunct issue is something I’ll talk more about later — but it’s complicated by an emergent and cancerous student culture where students think that it’s alright to ‘get faculty in trouble’ if something happens in a class they don’t like. For me, the basis of this cancer is a culture of entitlement amongst Gen Y’ers or Millenneals that is substantially different from any cultural attitude we have seen. That’s why I want to focus on this element.

Student Entitlement is Killing the Passion for Teaching

Most of us in education know exactly what I mean when I talk about ‘entitlement’, but let’s be specific about it …. Anderson, Halberstadt, and Aitken (2013) define entitlement as an exaggerated or unrealistic belief in what a person thinks s/he deserves. And is it any wonder that our students have it? We’ve cultivated a fake “self-esteem” generation where American students are the most self-confident in the world, yet know very little. For too long, there’s been a focus on being nicey-nice, not upsetting overly aggressive parents at the elementary and secondary levels of education, and now as a result of a generation of self-esteem it’s ruining the college experience as well.

So, instead of preparing our students for the real world by focusing on critical thinking, information vital to their majors, and being tough on them we have to cope with students ill-prepared for higher education and ill-prepared for life. Yet, many of these same students think they’re awesome and when you suggest their work is not they don’t know what to do with the information other than to evaluate the instructor as being wrong. And why wouldn’t they? Most people in their lives have said they poop roses. So, not only do we have to manage students but we’re increasingly having to manage their parents as well — one of the reasons many of us went into higher education and not primary/ secondary education … we didn’t want to deal with parents. But guess what? Lawn mower parents don’t turn off when the kid turns 18. Increasingly, these parents are petitioning faculty directly for improved grades for their kids, complaining to administrations if something happens in the classroom they don’t like, and forcing their kids to sign away their right to confidentiality with their faculty. Their argument — “I’m paying, it’s my right”. Well — while that might be the case that they can wield the financial mace against their children, they do more emotional and developmental damage than they can even imagine.

Let me offer a few examples from my own experience….

  • Before class one day, students and I were chatting about normal kinds of stuff and one of the students said something kind of sarcastic about “giving” everyone good grades because they deserved it and I had an equally sarcastic response — no big thing. One of the girls in class says (not being sarcastic), “That’s not nice — you’re paid to be nice to us.”… my response, “Oh sweetie, you clearly misunderstand — I’m not paid to be nice to you, I’m paid to educate you.” Snickers from the rest of class aside, this seems to be an operating assumption — we’re there to make them feel good and extol their virtues.
  • I had an advisee who had ‘failed to prioritize’ his school work, was a good kid, and we were devising a strategy for getting through the “problem” semester and looking forward. And then I got an email from his Mom asking my advise on whether she should lodge a complaint about a professor who had the audacity to fail him because he hadn’t been in class saying, “This isn’t the real world, doesn’t this seem overly harsh”. I then spent a considerable amount of time/ space explaining why (1) her complaint would be inappropriate, (2) why it is better for him to learn this lesson now when it’s just an “F” rather than in the real world where he’d lose his job, and (3) that it’s important for him to grow and develop as a person and make strategic decisions for himself. To her credit, this mother took it well and ultimately agreed. Yet for the next year, I received periodic emails and consultations on how to manage her child. My basic response was always something along the lines of, “He’s doing fine — I have him in two classes and his good practices in my classes seem consistent with the rest of his performance.” The kid was great to work with, his mother sucked time away from my research, my instruction, and frankly other students.
  • I had a student — nice kid, but decided to stop coming to class and didn’t turn a single assignment in all semester. Yet, about two-thirds of the way through the semester realized he was in academic trouble and came to me. So, my theory is that I usually give students enough rope to hang themselves. Sometimes they surprise me, but usually not. I made a deal with him for putting all of his eggs in his final project — if he did that well then his grade would be based on the project (which was the lion’s share of the course grade anyhow), he could pass the class. However, I also told him that he had to be in class each day. Fast forward to the end of the semester where the student hadn’t come to class and didn’t submit his final project and not surprisingly his grade was an F. Then, what I loved most was that around New Year’s he emailed me his project (grades were submitted before Christmas) and I said ‘sorry’. The next day his Mom emailed me and asked why I couldn’t make an exception — seriously…. At that point I explained the situation, appealed to fairness, and then said hell no.

Parents are damaging their kids

I may bitch and complain about the entitlement culture, but let’s face it — it’s their parents’ fault. Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers have royally screwed up when it comes to raising their kids. This generation of students are mostly nice, interested in issues of social equality, and care about the environment and all of those kinds of things. Unfortunately, they’re also ill-equipped to deal with the real world. Their parents have largely sanitized everything in their environment — removing struggle, failure, and connecting good performance with being a good person. The result is that we have a generation with high self-esteem, but not healthy self-esteem. What I mean by this is that our Millinneals are often unable to critically evaluate situations on their own, worry that failure at a task means they’re not a good person, and cannot take constructive criticism.

Let me give you an example… I had the opportunity to work closely with a fantastic student who I’m convinced is really going to change the world. She cares about people, cares about the underprivileged, and is working very hard to serve her community. We were working on a project and she emailed me a draft of her work and it was just terrible. We’d been working together for a while and so I gave her an  honest assessment with a lot of areas for improvement. She revised it and then didn’t really make any changes. My second round of feedback was more direct about the poor quality of the work and that until it was re-written I didn’t want to see it again. Well, she came to me and was crushed because she thought that it meant that I didn’t like her anymore. When she said that to me, I must have looked at her like she was completely daft but then had to explain the difference between finding her work bad and finding her a bad person. Yet, as I worked more closely with more folks from her generation, I’ve found that they have been told they poop roses so much and their parents, coaches, and earlier teachers have all told them they’ve done a good job (regardless of whether that’s actually true) and therefore they’re a good person. Now, they get to adulthood and they don’t know how to cognitively process getting negative feedback about their work without internalizing it as meaning that they’re a bad person. This became something I’d talk about with students on the first day of class and periodically throughout the class so that we could focus on improving their knowledge and skills.

Yet, this is the negative psychological side of this entitlement culture — we all complain about the parts that we see and are annoying that suck the fun and interest out of our jobs, but I also don’t think we often realize that there are also negative psychological consequences for this generation and the happy clappy everyone gets a prize because you all are awesome approach to life.

So, our institutions of higher education are screwed because they’re placating a bunch of over-indulged parents who think their kids can do no wrong and we’re raising a generation of kids who frankly don’t have the coping skills to deal with being adults. Awesome. In the mean time, those of us in higher education are finding fewer and fewer full-time positions as universities staff on the cheap, those with more marketable skills are probably looking outside of academia, but our job is fundamentally becoming worse and worse. And if you don’t think that ultimately affects the quality of education, think again. Yet, it’s sometimes hard to be sympathetic to our students when they and their parents are abusively emailing instructors demanding their grades be changed, complaining to administrations, and increasingly suing (or threatening to sue) universities over grading and faculty issues.

Quintessential Americanism (defined)

A few weeks ago I watched The Newsroom pilot for the first time and the title character is asked an utterly American question, ‘Why do you think America is the greatest country?’ — his response — ‘It’s not’ and in true Aaron Sorkin form offered a whole lot of information to support the argument. I had a small home cheering moment, but the thing that bugs me are exactly these silly assumptions — #1 that the US is still a great country and #2 that we’re the best in the world. Unfortunately, neither assumption is true — we lag in most measurable categories including education, health care, vacation/leisure time, our economy has shifted from a balanced economy to one that has gutted manufacturing and shifted ‘working class’ jobs to a model of inequality focused on poorly paid service sector, even higher education is showing evidence of not being worth the cost. Essentially, we are living in an age of rising inequality in the US.

Yet in the face of this stark reality, Americans remain bizarrely convinced of our overall infallibility and greatness.


Quintessential Americanism… defined

So, what do I mean by Quintessential Americanism — very simply, “A blanket refusal to change your opinion, even when confronted with direct evidence to the contrary…”

Why did this come up, in particular right now? Well, my Mom had lunch the other day with two of her friends from high school (they do this for each other’s birthdays and major holidays… it’s very sweet and they have a good time) and is updating them on what I’m doing, etc. since I’m in Germany. At this point in the conversation one of my Mom’s friends says that Germany’s on the brink of economic collapse, unemployment is dire here, oh my goodness, yadda yadda yadda. My Mom tries to respond with the stuff she and I’ve been talking about (e.g., quality of life, economic growth projections, the very low unemployment here … that kind of thing) but her friend will have none of it because Fox News said…

Obviously, Americans aren’t the only ones who are dogmatic — frankly all societies have quirky stupidity, but we seem to revel in our own ignorance and arrogance combined — that’s the heart of this ‘quintessential Americanism’ — we’re confident and we don’t have a good reason to be. FFS … opinions and facts should not be confused… the latter should inform the former — not the other way around.

Why is it so hard for Americans to not only be informed but also be open to new information? Of course, all peoples’ have blind spots and annoying belief structures (that’s the nature of the social animal); however, Americans are increasingly less informed, more dogmatic, and more rigid in our ways of thinking. We’ve been indoctrinated since really the McCarthy witch hunt for Commies and more recently with the GW Bush Administration to believe that if someone criticizes Uh-Mer-Ika or Uh-Mer-Ikans they’re not a patriot because those in power have a much easier time maintaining order and control when people are not engaged nor informed about basic social, economic, and political issues. There is no GOOD reason that the US can’t and shouldn’t be the country we once were (economically at least… I do think we have ups and downs in our social and political system over the years), but there are a whole lot of bad reasons — the ignorance of average Americans, our poor education system, our systematic disenfranchisement of the poor and working class, our shift away from a balanced economy, a media that simply doesn’t work, and an ethic in the US that would silence anyone who would have the audacity to suggest we could do better.

When I posted a quick frustrated comment about this on Facebook yesterday, someone I would have thought would have better sense responds to me with the following:

 i wonder if anyone has attempted studies to test that claim. a cursory google search yields nothing, but it seems like it’s taken for gospel among so many people that i can’t help but wonder. 

It seems it’s basically the liberal side of the house’s answer to “the average gun and freedom loving American,” except it’s “the average American moron who can’t think for his or her self.” both have this weird privilege of being viewed as hard fact despite their near-caricature status. Maybe it’s b/c i’ve never lived in middle america but I can’t think of a place I’ve lived where I could say anywhere near the majority of people I was around fit either description.

This is someone, who should frankly know better than to claim a “uh, I couldn’t find anything and therefore, it’s probably wrong” kind of response; unfortunately, this is also a person who represents a very typical American response to critique of the US/policy/Americans — they’re quick to dismiss and not really that interested in engagement.

But leaving the hard evidence aside for a moment (oh, don’t worry, I’ll come back to it 🙂 ) — what’s made me come to this conclusion? Is it because I’m a liberal who sheepishly follows talking points set out by the oh-so-coordinated ‘liberal agenda’ people? LMAO… not so much. I have literally lived from coast to coast in the US and north to south — mostly living and being around working class folks. Add in 15 years of teaching at a range of institutions of higher education from flagship state institutions, to small/local state institutions, to city-run colleges, and private colleges I have a pretty good sample of the general knowledge base of average 18 to now about 35 year olds (geez I’m getting old) that I have taught and/or coached. And then, I have the nearly innumerable random “pub” conversations about life and people with folks from all walks of life. I’m pretty confident in my understanding of different demographics in the US (and that doesn’t even count the actual research I’ve done on American demographics, attitudes, and belief structures). I’ve lived with someone from a different country (who comes from a working class background and can compare his blue collar parents with my blue collar parents) since 2006, traveled and talked with lots of folks (sustained and policy-based conversations) from lots of places, and now, I’ve had a chance to spend about 3 months immersed in a seriously working class/ struggling part of the UK and 5 months mostly in rural Germany (nice thing about not working, you get to know the community and locals) and outside of the ‘academic’ knowledge, my personal knowledge seems to verify it. Why does that matter? Well, it doesn’t/ shouldn’t to most folks… only tells me that from a variety of sources, I can feel comfortable with my conclusions.

But what about the hard evidence? Are Americans really less informed than people in other countries about politics, policy, social issues, etc.?

In two words — hell yes!

A quick peak at the evidence and keep in mind, while I haven’t done an exhaustive search, I’ve also NEVER run across ANY hard evidence to the contrary….

And how about outcomes or consequences of Quintessential Americanism? There are tons; however, I’ll give four examples…

American ignorance is dangerous — mostly to ourselves, but not exclusively to ourselves. Wouldn’t it be nice if being patriotic meant actually wanting to critically examine the US, without the veil of “taking our country back” or any of the other crazy bullshit that people articulate? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could elevate the level of conversation so that we could examine what’s working and the vast amount of stuff that isn’t? But we’re not there yet.

Instead, we continue to dumb down everything. Awesome job you quintessential Americans!

10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About America

This is a great piece that sums it up…. Since living abroad, I’ve fielded so many questions/ comments like, “An American once asked me where I lived, I told them in Frankfurt Germany and he said, ‘Great — I’ve been there, I really enjoyed Belgium'”, or asking why we seem to hate poor people, how we elected Bush twice, if people really pay attention to Fox News, and the list goes on. Most of the time, I just kind of have to shrug my shoulders and say, “yeah… that’s why I wasn’t sad to leave”.

The greatest random compliment that I get from folks after just a conversation about the world is, “You’re not like most Americans”… thank goodness.

Gay marriage, Japanese Internment, and Interracial Marriage

As the Supreme Court gets ready to hear arguments on California’s Proposition 8 — banning gay marriage, we should probably reflect on why it matters to any of us. The reason it matters is obvious if you’re gay or lesbian — this directly affects your life.

For the rest of us, the question is a little different. The reality is that this does absolutely NO HARM to anyone else nor anyone else’s marriage. To say that it’s legal for consenting adults to get married, regardless of the plumbing that they and their partner have is fundamentally irrelevant to the health and well-being of anyone else’s marriage.  If you belong to a religion whose literal interpretation of the Bible suggests it’s ‘wrong’ (then I hope you also are consistent and avoid eating shrimp, do not work on the Sabbath, sell your daughters into marriage, etc. because really — we’re talking about the same set of rules from the same chapter), then I’m guessing your church isn’t going to be marrying any gay folks anytime soon. Just the same as the churches who walk in the vision of religion that Christ actually talked about (e.g., loving everyone, tolerance,  judging not lest you be judged yourself… that kind of thing) who have been marrying lesbian and gay couples for quite a while are going to continue the practice.

So, if we forget that most of us know (or <gasp> are friends with GLBT folks) someone who’s lesbian or gay, the question is — why should it matter to us? Ironically enough, at a personal level it shouldn’t — someone’s right to marry another legal and consenting adult has absolutely no impact on anyone else’s marriage.

But at a social matter it really must. To say it doesn’t, is like saying that the physical and cultural genocide of native peoples in the US, internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, slavery, women’s rights, and the civil rights movements haven’t left a mark on Americans — who we are as a people and how we have tried to move forward from some of the ugliest parts of our short history. The annoying thing about Americans is that we pay lip service to being a “great” country and love our Constitution and Bill of Rights, but we still haven’t effectively dealt with our history of violence, racism, and sexism. Hell, there are still a significant portion of Americans — especially in the South — who still think it should be illegal for folks of different races to marry. But despite the crazy views of these jerks, society is moving forward. That’s why we can’t base our laws on vocal haters whose arguments are based in antiquated and frankly ignorant views of other human beings. We have to serve the greater good and our society with greater inclusiveness.

Scott Fujita, of the Cleveland Browns wrote an elegant essay on the importance of supporting marriage equality as the next step in improving the condition of equality in the US specifically talking positioning gay marriage in line with the other changes in American law — making the US more tolerant and more open to difference. It’s great to see more public figures like him coming forward to support equal rights — in fact, a solid majority of Americans support equal rights for our LGBT friends which speaks to our society’s views and values changing with time.

Idiocracy, American style

Coming back to our conversation in January about the lack of respect and consideration afforded to academic types — this very thoughtful analysis of a problematic Forbes published blog post demonstrates exactly why we have to change our attitudes about the “knowledge creators” in our society.

Yes, I know that’s a silly sounding play on the popular term “job creators”, but we place so much emphasis on corporations, making money, and supporting anti-intellectual values in the US that in the face of strong evidence people resort to logical fallacies to sway the masses. Unfortunately, logical fallacies are persuasive and compelling to people who don’t know any better. And a double dose of unfortunate circumstances is that the ‘knowledge creators’ (i.e., academics, researchers, and scientists) are viewed suspiciously in modern American society — like we’re trying to pull one over on the people with our wacky liberal agendas and complex analyses.

Welcome to Idiocracy — American style!

Progressive Culture | Scholars & Rogues

CATEGORY: ClimateOn February 13, James M. Taylor of The Heartland Institute published a deceptive and dishonest blog post at Forbes in which he falsely claimed that a new study rejected the overwhelming scientific consensus about the human causes of climate disruption. On February 20, Taylor dedicated a second Forbes blog to the same study, and instead of admitting his factual errors and correcting his original post, he chose to attack both his critics and the study’s authors. However, his second post was filled with yet more false claims that demonstrate yet again Taylor’s habit of deception and dishonesty.

Taylor attacks a straw man

According to Taylor, climate disruption realists (those who accept the reality that human activity is the dominant driver of climate disruption) supposedly feel that “only atmospheric scientists are qualified” to comment on climate disruption and that geoscientists and engineers are not qualified. While having an understanding of atmospheric…

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Poor tippers aren’t the problem, it’s our 3rd world economy

PoorTippersArticleAre the poor tippers really the problem for food service employees?  A Facebook friend posted this article on his newsfeed today and while I empathize, have worked in food service, and wondered about this lady’s “skills” as a server, I think this very common sentiment is completely misplaced.  Instead of complaining about the poor tippers, we should complain that any employee is paid below the minimum wage (and yes, the minimum wage is a joke, but that’s an entirely different can of worms).

A “tip”, by definition is, “something given voluntarily or beyond obligation usually for some service”.  Tipping in the US — especially in the food service industry — is clearly not really voluntary, we are obligated to leave a tip for the employee because I think most of us understand they’re not properly paid.  By modern social obligation in the US, the customer’s cost of dinner is really 20% higher than the price posted on the menu because we have to pay the wages for the food/ drink service employees.  But what does the tip mean — is it just a ‘free market’ evaluation of the server’s performance? Not really — it’s also an evaluation of the quality of the food, the ambiance, the mood of the diner(s), etc.  Yet, the food industry has managed to keep this little loophole in labor law to legally define people in food service or ANY industry receiving more than $30 per month of their wages in tips as having a minimum wage at or below $3 per hour (for good background information on the history of this, check out Wiser Waitress).

The result is that the food industry have consistently the lowest wages and the highest levels of job insecurity in the US, yet they are the fastest growing sector in the US with about 70% of new low wage jobs in food service.  The irony is that the food industry demonstrates a genuinely third world approach to employment and work because, as last year’s (2012) National Labor Employment Project reports, the industry is marked by many of the large corporations in the industry posting record profits while the workers see the purchasing power of their wages diminishing.  Certainly, the report goes beyond just servers; however, the theme in the industry is clear — workers quality of life doesn’t really matter.

While servers are in the most volatile position in this third world economy that Americans are building where the rich and the “corporate people” are boasting record profits while average people are getting poorer with each passing year as our wages in the last decade have stagnated at a level higher than during the Great Depression.  Oh, and let’s not forget that the overwhelming majority of food service employees in the US get no paid sick days and the irony is that the Center for Disease Control estimates that because people go to work sick an average of 5 million people get the flu alone each year because of workplace policies regarding sick days.  Great — we support a third world economy AND it’s likely to get us sick because those who can least afford not getting paid are serving us our poncy meals out.

Yet, why do Americans continue to ask the wrong questions or make the wrong critiques?  Well, in this case we can relate to this young woman — either because we ask if she’s a crap server/ works in a crap restaurant or because we’ve been there and empathize greatly (especially in a college town).  When we focus the conversation on the bad tippers, we’re conceding that the corporate interests supporting paying people under $3 an hour are OK. I’m not saying “don’t tip” in the US for obvious reasons; however, instead of being embarrassed at not tipping enough, we should be angry that a large segment of our workers are abused workers.  I get her frustration because there have been many a shitty business night (e.g., Mondays or Tuesdays) where I went to work and was the only server on duty and made like $20 because we only had two tables the whole night.  Why should the employer be allowed to schedule me to spend 5 hours of my time for functionally no wage? They don’t do that with the back of the house. The owner certainly takes their money — but they do it on the backs of the serving and bartending staff.

My last food service job was working at a cute little Tapas restaurant where I made pretty good tips (I made more in tips for fewer hours than working as an adjunct college instructor while finishing my dissertation… lovely) and there was a great German couple who came in one night.  They were friendly, chatty, enjoyed the food and drink, thanked me for my great service, and left me a 10% tip.  My first reaction?  Honestly — ‘What the fuck?’ and then I remembered — servers are actually paid in Europe and a 10% tip is an EXCELLENT tip.  So, what could I do — it wasn’t their fault Americans don’t believe employees are worth paying a wage.  If the cost of food and drink needs to be 20% higher in order to pay at least a decent wage to our food service employees, that’s what we should support so that a tip is a voluntary and not a social obligation.  Instead of supporting a third world economy, Americans need to hold all businesses to account for their labor practices.

And no — it’s not taking money away from the ‘job creators’ — it’s ensuring we stop our slide to becoming the richest third world country in the world… GO USA!