Friday, March 31, 2006

Work, Slack, and Dorm Room Debates

In passing, someone mentioned today that most of her students work 40 or more hours per week for pay, in addition to carrying substantial courseloads. Something about the way she said it struck me. I’ve heard that before, but the tone has changed. Ten years ago, it was usually said in a “can you believe it” tone. Now, it’s just matter-of-fact.

If you’re taking, let’s say, four or five classes, and working forty hours a week on top of that, when do you do homework? When do you study, or read, or just do the daily stuff of life? When do you decompress?

It’s a sticky subject. It’s easy to use it to justify whatever ideology you bring to the table. Some students are single moms, burning the candle at both ends to give their kids better lives, and some are spoiled little brats who care more about maintaining their membership at the tanning salon than actually cracking a book. Honesty compels me to admit that I’ve seen both. Most are somewhere in between, making what they believe is a reasonable effort at doing well in their classes while also saving up for beer and clothes, paying for car insurance and textbooks, and daydreaming about boyfriends/girlfriends. Honesty compels me to admit that at 18, I spent a non-trivial amount of time thinking about girls, sometimes even in class. I don’t think this generation is much different as far as that goes.

Assuming that human nature hasn’t radically changed, I would guess that was has changed is the purchasing power of their jobs, relative to their lives. Tuition and textbooks have gone up much faster than inflation for thirty years now; entry-level wages haven’t. Financial aid is more geared to loans than to grants, compared to a generation or two ago. Cars are necessary, given the sorry state of public transportation in most of America. And yes, there are the stupid money mistakes 18 year olds have always made, and will always make. (The letter home asking for money is a hoary epistolary genre for a reason.) But now those mistakes are easier to make, and harder to rectify.

So granting upfront that reasons for working so many hours vary from noble and inarguable to vain and stupid, I still can’t help but wonder at the long-term educational impact of a generation of college graduates who spent their entire college careers working 40 or more hours a week. Historically, that’s a relatively new thing. (Yes, there have been strivers, but they used to be the exception.)

For all the wonders of technology and the supposed fluency in multitasking that we’re told characterize the ‘millenial’ generation, I wonder when they get the chance (or the obligation) to shut the world out and do battle with a long, difficult, challenging book. When do they get the chance for those self-indulgent, ridiculous, yet useful late-night dorm room arguments about the nature of the universe, the corruption of the government, and how organized religion is a vast conspiracy to keep you from getting laid? (Not that I ever had any conversations like that...) Yes, the substance of those gabfests is usually naught, but they’re the cognitive equivalent of puppies play/fighting. They build skills.

When do they have the confined leisure that generates the kind of productive boredom that leads to breakthroughs? They’re often tired, but when do they get restless?

In talking with some folks who’ve been around longer than I have, one of the defining characteristics of the millenials is that they’re the least rebellious cohort of young people in living memory. That’s not always a bad thing – heaven knows, plenty of campus radicals need nothing more than to get over themselves – but again, at least radicalism reflects taking the time to think. This group doesn’t rebel, I suspect, because it doesn’t have the time to think about such questions long enough for rebellion to occur to them.

It’s not for lack of opportunity. The Bush administration gives plenty of reason for rebellion. On the other side, if David Horowitz were anything close to right, conservatives on campus would be in open rebellion against their radical commie professors. Yet, not.

I’ve written before about productive slack in the context of organizations. This generation of students gets less slack than any before. Aristotle noted that contemplation requires leisure. Do these kids get the leisure to contemplate? If they don’t, will whatever we do during those 15 hours a week of class really mean all that much? If they’re just rushing from class to job to party to sleep to class again, they’re missing something crucial. And they’re much too busy to notice.

We need to cut them some slack. And to have the wisdom to not mind when they use it for what looks like loafing.