Thoughts on intellectual development and millennials and Ron Srigley's Walrus article

A colleague of mine passed me an article by Ron Srigley in the Walrus, which is apparently making the rounds. Srigley argues that because university education is a credential and not something undertaken for its own sake, its value is decreasing. He argues that the management and administrative side of the university is increasing its presence in the educational mission of the university, with the result that the education is increasingly "contentless". As the ultimate expression of this lack of content, he suggests that e-learning is the final stop on this train - credentials without any educational content.

I have been thinking a lot about the academic/administrative divide at universities and there has been a lot of insightful writing about it over the years. I've summarized some of my thoughts here and here. Srigley touches on some of these points - the increase in "life skills" curricula, the administrative challenges to academic freedom in and out of the classroom, among others. But I have a few problems with Srigley's article as well.

One response (sent to me by the same colleague who sent the Srigley article in the first place) by the Hook and Eye blog was, I thought, on point: Srigley "walks into the discussion with a view that people are primed to want to hear." That view is in part based on a pejorative view of the "millennials", the generation from which our students are drawn. So, I wanted to dispense with that, right away. Adam Conover's lecture about how Millennials Don't Exist, I think dispenses with it very elegantly:

Conover's point is that every generation from cave-dwellers on has viewed the next generation as "lazy, entitled, narcissistic, etc." My own take on "millennials" is that they face more economic and environmental challenges than the previous couple of generations, and it ill behooves those of us (I'm right on the border between "boomers" and millennials, apparently, even though as Conover notes, all these generational boundaries are subjectively drawn) who left the millennials with those challenges to also call them names.

Going back to Srigley and to the reaction to Srigley in Hook and Eye, Srigley's article is full of contempt for students. Solutions for the educational problems he identifies can't come from a place of contempt for students. There are some problems, too, with the data Srigley presents.

* On the declining value of a degree: "Six months after graduation, the class of 2012 had an average income 7 percent below that of the class of 2005. Two years after graduation, incomes dropped to 14 percent below those of the 2005 class." Srigley says: "Though there are likely several reasons for this decline (increases in the number of graduates, demographic shifts in markets, precarious labour), one in particular matches perfectly with the type of change I’ve observed on my watch: the eradication of content from the classroom." In fact, I am almost certain that the "eradication of content" has nothing to do with this supposed declining value of a degree. Because what he has identified is not even a declining value of a degree - it's a drop in incomes between 2005 and 2012. To say this has anything to do with a degree, Srigley would have had to compare the incomes of people with degrees to people without them. I haven't done that, but I'll bet that those without degrees saw their incomes decline too (there was the little matter of the 2008-9 recession in that period), and probably more than those with them.

* On textbook sales as evidence that students don't read: "I was teaching George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I had ordered 230 copies based on enrolment numbers. At the end of term, the bookstore had sold only eighteen copies, a hit rate of about 8 percent." Maybe students read less than previous generations, maybe they don't. But declining sales at the bookstore, for a book like 1984 that is so incredibly easily available from the web, public libraries, borrowed copies, etc., does not prove anything about students and reading.

* I didn't like the reference to colleagues as "partly educated", even qualified as Srigley did it.

* There are certainly problems with the uncritical adoption of technology in teaching. But standing at the front of the class and talking is also a technological choice, and there is no reason to think it is better than other choices. Srigley caricatures online education, "flipped classrooms", etc. - all of which are worthy of study and of critique - but they have to be presented fairly in order to be critiqued, not caricatured and then dismissed.

But my biggest problem with it was actually that it's addressed to parents. I would have thought that for someone with such a traditionalist view of education, treating students like adults would have been an important starting point. But Srigley systematically addresses his article to the parents of his students rather than to the students themselves.

I have been reading a lot about intellectual development lately and I have softened a little bit on my prior absolutist view that students must be treated as adults and that it was disrespectful of an instructor to, for example, insist that they put away their devices for part of a lesson, or set boundaries (perhaps collectively) about how to create a classroom environment. I have read Montessori and Waldorf, Kohn, and some recent books summarizing research like NurtureShock. It seems that intellectual development is ongoing into the early twenties, so that even at the university level, we have to pay attention to the developmental aspects of education (and not just trying to share our expertise on the content). BUT, having said all this, I still think it's incredibly important to treat students as adults, and not to think of the role of a university teacher as one of negotiating with a student's parents or other relatives. If an article about problems in university education is to be written, it should at least to some extent be addressed to the people who are suffering from the problems - the students - and not to their parents.