5 things you don’t have the guts to tell your students



I have no idea how I got a tenure-track university position. I didn’t network well in graduate school, had few friends, and wrote my dissertation on an author (Houellebecq) whom most academics despise. My teaching-assistant evaluations were subpar, my thesis was insufficiently scholarly (at least according to one committee member), and—unlike many of my colleagues—I had no graduate-student publications. I spent a year teaching as an adjunct before accepting a position that had been offered to several people before me, all of whom had declined. Several times I considered abandoning the profession. I remain convinced that my hiring at a four-year accredited state university was the result of a cosmic miracle.

The difficulties I encountered in finding a job are not unique to academe. Just about every young American enrolled in college coursework today should regard graduation with a certain foreboding. The welcome page of my institution’s Web site recently posted several pictures of students who, as a large caption explained, were “hired before graduation.” Such plaudits serve to attract new students to the university, but seem to me to represent a half-baked institutional optimism.

Students need to be told what their chances are, and educators are obligated—both professionally and morally—to give their students some sense of the world into which they are about to be spat. I passionately reject the notion that a college education is worth only what it pays in salary or hourly wage. At the same time, I’ve encountered enough “liberal studies” majors with GPAs of 2.5 to know that something is seriously wrong.

Here are five ways educators might level with their students. Each point is addressed not to the teacher but to the student. It never hurts to put ourselves in their place.

1. Prosperity has made us lazy, entitled do-nothings.

For reasons that a historian of economics could explain, the United States was able to amass quantities of wealth after World War II that the world had not seen since the days of Rome. That prosperity, accompanied by the cult of self-esteem that emerged in the 1980s, has led your parents to encourage you to possess inflated senses of happiness, confidence, and self-worth. The result: You belong to a generation that lacks an honest sense of what it’s capable of.

Ideally, a university would be a weeding-out institution—or at least a place where students are made to focus on what they are good at, rather than on what they think they are good at. Of course, if this became official policy, the number of students in universities would drop by half, imperiling the already imperiled employment of tens of thousands of people. The only choice, barring totalitarian measures, is to go on transforming the American university into a glorified high school.

2. You will probably not achieve the level of prosperity that your parents enjoyed.

Do you remember the late 1990s? Wild prognostications proliferated about the future of the economy. Analysts spoke of the Dow at 20,000, at 30,000. People bought McMansions and SUVs. Then something went terribly, terribly wrong. September 11, 2001? Two foreign wars? Credit default swaps? Explain it however you’d like. The point is that the world we live in today is unlike what anyone in 1998 would have predicted. The chance that things will recover in time for you to enjoy the prosperity your parents experienced at middle age is very low. You are going to have to learn to be happy with less. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

3. You probably don’t have the necessary skills to get a middle-class job.

Do you really think you’ll be able to keep up with all those kids studying math and science in India and China? Tech companies on the West Coast are already asking the government to ease immigration requirements for foreign workers recruited for high level IT and engineering jobs. Most American college students have no idea of the quantity of geniuses whom developing countries are producing and sending to the United States. These people know how underperforming the average American student is, and they are taking advantage.

4. Be realistic, not optimistic.

News flash: The postwar period is over. Other countries want a slice of the pie, and they’re working harder than we are to get it. There is no beautiful future waiting for you—not unless you’re willing to work extraordinarily hard for it. I know this is all very hard to accept: America is the mythical land of opportunity, and to question American optimism is to question what this country is all about. But as most economists will tell you, our legal system is becoming more and more oppressive, our midcentury infrastructure is falling apart, and not enough young people are developing the skills to compete with their counterparts in other countries.

5. Prosperity is by no means guaranteed.

Too often American optimism becomes the indolent expectation that things will simply continue on as they have. A country is only the sum of the people living and working within its borders, acquiring remunerative skills, spending money, paying taxes, and raising children to do the same. Would you like to see the United States become a third-world country in your lifetime? Do you want to live in a society of haves and have-nots, with almost no one in between? Be realistic. It could happen. And the only thing standing between you and that future is your own self-determination and hard work.

Would it that we educators could speak to our students in this way! Most universities in the United States are mired in a fundamental fear of pushing back against students’ sense of entitlement, with the familiar results of falling standards, inflated grades, and degrees that are worth less and less every year. Teachers can’t fight back because they are indentured to the system of student evaluations; administrators won’t fight back because they have to obey political diktats commanding that every student graduate and become economically productive as soon as possible.

Despite all this, I cannot help having sympathy for even the most mediocre of students, for those whose feeling of entitlement is out of proportion with their gifts. The sad truth is that even hard work is now becoming less and less a guarantee of prosperity. This is probably what all too many students sense: that it doesn’t matter how hard they try in class, how high their GPA is, or how much they impress their teachers. Perhaps those attitudes that teachers recoil from most in their students—laziness, entitlement, indifference—represent a justifiable hesitancy to participate in a world they fear will not reward their labor.

Author Bio: Louis Betty is an assistant professor of French at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater.