intellectual stamina

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.


A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

16.1 (Winter 2016)


Writing, Thinking, & the Spirit
prae-206Picture courtesy of the Art Renewal Center


A Report from the Maelstrom’s Vortex: How Bright College Students with Limited Intellectual Stamina Are Protecting Themselves from Reality
John R. Harris

Undergraduates are increasingly afflicted by symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder and an alarming inability to memorize.  There are also fewer real men in the humanities.

Educators’ “stories from the trenches” can be tedious, even to their colleagues. The genre is grossly overworked, and I would not add to its burden without what I considered just cause. I’ve survived over three decades of campaigns on the front line and in widely differing terrain. It’s never easy… but it’s always the same in never being easy. To report complications and challenges is to add nothing new to general knowledge.

There’s also the tendency to “over-exaggerate” the degenerative state of the median (if I may use a now popular verb painfully indicative of our educational failures) by highlighting lurid exceptions. Not every train is running off the track. Somehow, the group I had during this past Fall semester in the British Lit Survey performed as solidly as any bunch of students I’ve ever known. Polite to a person and almost attentive to a person, this class leaves me wondering how fresh any given barrel might remain without a rotten apple to poison it. Did I just get lucky in the draw? Or did an unusal percentage of bright, burly males cause the guys to rethink the “gayness” of literature and the girls to spend less time tuning out on Facebook? Did the presence of two or three “non-traditional” students (as those over thirty are known in the biz) inoculate the barrel against mold? Did the physical setting play a part?

Well… so there’s that. On the other hand, the disturbing facets of this semester were not attributable merely to the new wave of uncouth freshmen. My one upper-division class also posed me some puzzlers. For instance, this group was asked at one point to memorize the endings of the first two noun declensions in Latin and Greek. It sounds quite a chore, stated so bluntly; but we were two months into the semester, and everybody should long since have learned the Greek alphabet. Furthermore, alphabet aside, there is significant overlap between Latin and Greek: that, indeed, is one of the course’s founding assumptions, since it emphasizes commonalities between the two and extends these to the modern romance languages and to English. So if you learn the Latin endings, you’ve basically learned the Greek endings. Add this to that, finally: I asked of the students no more than to fill in blank spaces left in the paradigm charts. Out of the ten case endings that might complete the root domin-, for example (five cases in the singular, five in the plural), I filled in four and required only the remaining six. I was unconcerned here with the students’ ability to determine which case was appropriate in a certain context: that is, they were not being further taxed to decide if “master” appeared in a sentence as a direct object or a possessive. It was as simple as filling in a letter or two. If you had been charged with memorizing ten consecutive first names in the phone book and given a weekend to do it (though, as I have remarked, these scholars had the advantage of two months’ mounting familiarity), don’t you think you could handle the job? If two entries were “Charles” and two were “Jane”, don’t you think you might manage it in half an hour?

Taken collectively, my juniors and seniors bombed the test. They were certainly not dullards—not most of them. Something else was going on. Many could perform no better on a vocabulary quiz drawn from a list of twenty Latin words (virtually all selected because they possessed an English derivative). Was it a newly evolved blindspot of the same order that prevented them from being able to locate homework assignments? I had printed the textbook from a Word file (the manuscript is my own work-in-becoming), and somehow the version that came from the printer had different margins and, hence, page numbers that gradually departed from the values on the syllabus. But none of this should have mattered. When you spend a week studying the passive voice, shouldn’t it be fairly obvious that the tables you need to memorize are those in the section about the passive voice? When the homework is to translate sentences in Exercise Set 3.5 B, shouldn’t you be able to sleuth a page or two after the number in the syllabus and find Exercise Set 3.5 B? A single student lately remarked, “The page numbers shouldn’t matter. The exercises are clearly numbered.” I restrained my tears, but only with difficulty.

I allowed the class to use personally recorded notes on the final exam’s Greek section, which was quite challenging. Several were puzzled when I did not permit them to call up on their smartphones the snapshot of a classmate’s notes. I’m prepared to believe that they were genuinely shocked. As well, extra credit was awarded on this test for correct recall of certain specified lines (in the original Greek or Latin) from classical authors. One student claimed not to understand why she could not jot a few such lines onto her page of notes.

The exam didn’t go well, as I had foreseen by the time I stood passing it out… but the older students performed distinctly better. Very distinctly better. Age is clearly one factor, and it’s not working in favor of most college enrollees. As I sit writing retrospectively, I am suddenly put in mind of an incident from about a year ago involving another upper-division class (i.e., a junior/senior level course with widespread age differences). The course was titled Modern Grammar, and I wanted the group to sample the classic recording of J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, with Cyril Cusack as Christy and Siobhan McKenna as Pegeen Mike. Naturally, there was no technical provision for playing my LP album; but a couple of scenes, fortunately, were available on YouTube. If ever a group of voices could paint a picture in vivid colors… but, alas, these were only voices. No pictures, images, icons, or emoticons. One and all in the room dealt me a blank gaze, as if I had asked them to crawl along the ceiling with a bayonette in their teeth. They couldn’t do it: they couldn’t listen to an audio recording and make anything of it. No pictures. And the older students, this time, seemed little less stumped than the younger ones.

So the terminus beyond which age has rendered students safe from infection must be thirty years, and probably more like forty. What, exactly, is happening or has happened? Why can young people (even the “older young”) preparing to graduate from college (or “graduate college”: the verb is now transitive, like every other verb in postmodern English) not make the simplest logical associations? Why do they need emailed reminders of what they are to do, even when the syllabus is letter-perfect? They obviously don’t or can’t listen well; but why does even visual supplementation need to dance, pulse, and respond to button-pushing? Is reading from a sheet of paper a skill unrelated to reading from a screen? Why do they not grasp the gist of the most basic instructions delivered in any non-electronic form? Why do their notions of fairness equate to a complete liberation from mental labor?

The freshmen, in particular—for I have finally, inexorably come to them—needed confirmation of everything by way of an email message. Very soon, I suspect, this will have to be a text message, for email has grown passé. I will concede at once that the shift to “messaging”—a post-literate, non-verbal form of communication that uses a mix of isolated letters and signs (including “emojis”) to convey formulaic, fragmentary, or cliché thoughts—is our generation’s fault, not our children’s. We have done this to them. Specifically, we educators have introduced ever more gadgetry into the classroom without regard for the long-term consequences. We argue that we are preparing our charges for the twenty-first century, accepting blindly that the future must be more mechanized rather than that intelligent humans must choose when and whether to mechnaize. We wrap ourselves in progressive chic, proud that we are “innovative” and “on the cutting edge”. We even wedge into the increasingly nonsensical criteria for professional performance our classroom’s degree of high-tech adaptation—as if PowerPoint shows and YouTube videos reflected instructional enhancement rather than lack of depth and inspiration. Few of us, sedated in a growing self-satisfaction, retain enough alertness to ask others (or ask ourselves) if all of this “gismology” being foisted upon us by administrators may indicate very large amounts of money changing hands very secretly at very powerful levels of government. How many of the hardware and software producers and merchandisers involved in our classroom are making rich contributions to the campaign coffers of state senators and governors?

That having been said, our children are no longer kidnap-victims: they are zealous recruits fully won to the cause (perhaps through the operation of something like Stockholm Syndrome). They don’t even want to talk about the issues surrounding their smartphones, their video games, their Facebook pages, their FAFSA accounts. Over the three years that I have sought to combine some discussion of advanced technology in my Freshman Composition classes (in the manner urged by the late Neil Postman), I have noted steadily escalating hostility. This fall, a very bright a well-educated coed (the product of an elite private school) felt compelled to write and share with the class a four-page denunciation of the semester’s subject matter. It was all hifallutin, tree-hugging, pseudo-intellectual sophistry—a technophobia much affected by academics who wished to project to the world a superior, above-the-fray image. Students (continued my accuser) had no recourse but to write what they thought the instructor expected from them: a seconding of his supercilious view from the clouds. Though I was not named, my own place clearly occupied the bull’s eye pierced by shaft after shaft. My kind of pedant was “narcissistic” (which word, I recalled, this girl had also used of Wendell Berry when he dared to write that our War on Terror showed too little awareness of other cultures—what narcissism, to invite us to walk in another person’s shoes!). Students would be best advised to ignore such posturing and engage the world as it really is. Technology is not threatening individuality or intellectual acuity: it is honing both to a keenness they have never before enjoyed in human history.

And so forth. As you may imagine, the class was utterly silent when this dressing down ended. I myself felt as though my face were red from repeated slapping: it wasn’t the kind of thing I had ever had to deal with in a college classroom (and in high school or junior high, the worst would be a literal slap in the face or blunt object launched through the air). I tried to respond matter-of-factly that a) I had never required any particular position of students in their writing; b) my own suggestion had always been a closer study of technology’s applications, not a Luddite desertion of it; and c) all the academics I knew were in fact gung-ho in embracing every next high-tech thing in their class (just as I remarked above). At eighteen years of age, however, my “Narcissus Nemesis” insisted that she new academics better than I, and she frittered away what remained of our time by distinguishing between how the species gears up for daily chores and how it thinks about life.

I lost sleep over this incident. I’m still not fully recovered from it. It has left me completely bemused. I’m not even sure if the political orientation of the attack was left or right. Was I being accused of seeking to undermine the healthy functioning of the capitalist system, with its genius for developing and marketing new products? Or was I indeed being called a Luddite—a cranky old has-been who was cloaking his ignorance of progress in a mantle of diehard virtue? (There are contradictions here, by the way, which have come to characterize so-called conservative and liberal thinking at the highest levels: my student’s lofty disdain for examining causes and effects merely echoes the “pro-capitalist progressivism” that describes our mainstream political life better than anything truly conservative or liberal.)

What annoyed me most—what truly pisses me off at this instant, as an aging observer of the world—was the presumption that my own experience counts for nothing. “No, Professor Narcissus, the world is not growing more centralized: it merely flatters your Jeremaic pose to descry such a trend from the mountaintop.” The mushrooming of the IRS, the NSA, the ATF… the creation of vast federal bureaucracies like HUD, HEW, and the Departments of Labor and Education… the regulations which now mire the purchase of a few 20/20 shells or the extension of a back porch or the replacement of a hot-water heater… that very FAFSA form which all of my students should have had the joy of completing on their own, but which their parents probably slogged through on their behalf… the new medical records mandate… the SPAM that saturates our email boxes because we bought a book at Amazon… oh, all of that has always been there, you know, or else something worse. We’re actually freer than ever. I’m just imagining a sea change. My sixty years—they never really happened: while staring at my relfection in the pool, I turned Rip van Winkle. I’ve been asleep for half a century. I’m misrepresenting everything just to be able to shake my finger at a captive audience.

What’s good for a dog bite? Patience, to let its effects wear off; but also, perhaps, a new wariness of attacks from the shadows. I have to admit that I shall never again address these issues in a freshman class with quite the same openness. The resentment of our “young adults” is starting to seethe too close to the surface: any challenge of “smartphone culture” is starting to appear to our late adolescents as a direct personal assault. Intricately bound up in such technology is their delicate identity. To warn them that their minds are being programmed is to call them stupid, as they see it; to alert them to the dozens of databases gobbling up their half-considered choices and feeding back to them boilerplate associations is to call them slaves, as they see it. Yet why would I waste my time warning an idiot? Why waste any effort trying to free a willful slave? Why should my appeals not be received as a compliment rather than an insult? Because the addict needs his drug; and when you call him an addict, you insult him!

The quintessential example of this the climax of a series of incidents involving a very slovenly response to a paper deadline. My two freshman classes were told verbally that they could email their submission to me by noon on Saturday without penalty if they were unsatisfied with its state by Thursday’s meeting. I devoted that meeting to brief individual conferences, mostly involving grammatical problems on the paper’s opneing page. When I announced as my first class began that students could depart after our individual conference, four took off immediately. I hadn’t yet taken attendance: they heard some sentence fragment about departing, and they departed. I’m afraid I was so aghast that I wasn’t able to regroup and call them back before the door shut. In the second class, I took greater pains to specify that I was not dismissing class. This group, instead, decided to get together afterward and convince itself collectively that the five-minute discussion of Page One completed the submission process—that all my talk about a Saturday deadline at high noon had never occurred, or was background noise coming out of the air-conditioner. Upon perceiving that this little mutiny was afoot (on Saturday afternoon), I composed and sent an email to one and all that naturally had a chiding tone; and to finish with a mildly humorous nudge, I added, “What is to become of you poor waifs in this hard world if you can’t follow directions?”

I very shortly received a response from a strapping youth who informed me that he “did not appreciate” being called a “homeless person”. I never saw him again, for the rest of the semester. My office-mate managed to track down the dumpster-diving allusion which so puzzled me; he found that some online urban dictionary offered “homeless person” as the definition of “waif”. The young man had Googled a word that he had never seen and snapped up the first explanation he found. I should add that I couldn’t convince him of the message’s having been addressed to the whole class, even though “waifs” carried a final “s”. He insisted (through email) that the insult was personal. I wish he had Googled “formation of standard plurals in English”.

Here, then, we have a generation whose members are by no means unintelligent, but who cannot concentrate sufficiently on verbal or written instructions enough to execute a task without reminders; who seek enlightenment on points of doubt not from the source, but from “word on the street” or from the same half-baked, palm-held e-brain that made them slipshod thinkers, to begin with; who are very quickly offended if anyone—but especially an older person—says anything that they choose to interpret as a slight; and who are slighted by nothing so much as a disparaging reference to their palm-held device. Good luck with that future, home-bound persons!

My excellent office-mate, since I have introduced him into my cast of characters, conducted his own experiment in the mechanics of the freshman mind. On a seventy-question exam, he wrote in his opening instructions that, to answer the final question, students need only write the professor’s name. Out of a class of thirty-seven, nine left that question blank: almost one in four.

Once more, I am acutely aware of the fallacy involved in declaring the whole barrel rotten just because its smell is a bit too sweet (a five-percent brownie point really doesn’t draw much attention) or because one or two apples have gone bad. Among my freshmen were several superior students who were polite, affable, tactful, and mature as well as reasonable and eloquent. Yet inattention to big things begins in small things; and as for rotten apples, group dynamics pose a constantly lurking menace to the teacher. You never know when one or two contentious elements in the bunch may have some disruptive or chilling effect on everything you seek to accomplish.

I’m going to hazard a theory about what I see going wrong right now that could probably get me fired if I were not already close to retirement. I’ve already intimated that I see an age factor, and declaring that much is politically incorrect enough (since the drawing of any distinction whatever is non-PC). It’s also not sufficiently deep or thorough, however: it doesn’t account, say, for why one class of freshman so outperformed another even though the latter actually had a couple of older students on board. Yes, age is a factor, but not the only significant one. I think gender is a major determinant, as well.

Earlier in this piece, I let slip a “gender slur” (probably missed by most of you who do not inhabit the halls of ivy) about coeds being captivated by Facebook. Sorry, but it’s true: the female of the species is far more apt to be immersed in social media. Even in my delightful British Lit class, I noticed one morning that every single girl was sitting mesmerized before her smartphone as I walked in. I stopped and counted. The males were pecking at something on their laptop, or perhaps staring into space. Such tallies are available to anyone who walks casually about any college campus. The peculiarly female fixation with social media could explain why young women, especially, feel threatened or insulted by suggestions of creeping Net enthrallment. Of my two freshman classes, the one which produced deeper discussion of the issues was the one where bright, vocal males regularly participated. You may recall that I volunteered the same reason for the Brit Lit class’s success. Rank sexism? Well, I am indeed proposing here that the sexes behave somewhat differently, on average—and that suffices to get you shot, hanged, and quartered in these days of fine analysis. Yet might one not retort that young women are well served to be alerted that they, especially, risk failure to develop independent thinking habits as the gravity of social media draws us all into its vortex?

A few supporting observations, not statistically documented here (of course) but strongly suggested by observation, may add ballast to my theory. They are drawn from lengthy class discussions involving two groups of over twenty freshman each.

1)         More female than male students believe that we should trust our elected government, since it is dedicated to serving and protecting us; more male students are very cynical about any government undertaking. (A footnote: when I was an undergraduate, trust in government was a measure of affinity with the political right wing. Now it indicates a diametrically opposed attraction.)

2)         Female students are distinctly more likely to favor gun control. Among males, the only perceptible pattern in favor of such a position involved those whose families had very recently arrived from Mexico, where private citizens are forbidden to own firearms of most varieties.

3)         A book titled Half the Sky was required reading of all entering freshmen. Its authors repeatedly asserted that a major obstacle to the promotion of “women’s issues” around the world has been the uniquely Republican resistance to funding multi-million dollar UN operations in Africa and elsewhere. The book declined to remark that many of the bills in question stalled because Democrats flatly refused to remove abortion from the provisions, that UN programs are notoriously corrupt and inefficient, that the cultural disruption represented by Western intrusions often poses greater problems than mere family size, that an infusion of external funding can never be a long-term solution to local problems, and that the words “education” and “cultural imperialism” are often a mere choice between whitewash and tar in describing the same invasive activities launched by feuding politicos. One could progress steadily down this list and find female students embracing the authors’ views far less critically than male students. On every single issue of the five I have just mentioned, such a graphic split would occur.

4)         Mistrust of the news media is now all but universal among freshmen. This superficial agreement, however, conceals vast difference. Coeds are far more apt to accept that information dispensed by major outlets like NBC, ABC, and CBS is reliable while cable news and blogs remain highly suspect. Among male students, finding a single exponent of this position is very difficult.

Now young men, as has become generally known, no longer attend college in proportions nearly as large as they did fifty years ago. Today they are a minority on most campuses, and an ever-shrinking one. As much as I would like to sound a loud alarm, then, about the insidious conditioning of our thoughts by communications technology—and as often as I have done so before in this journal’s pages—I am beginning to wonder if these issues do not have an entirely hidden facet. Yes, multiple “smart” devices are now drawing young people away from realities right before their eyes and into an accelerating orbit around an ever more regulative, ever less personal nexus; and yes, this centripetal, funnel-like effect gives the illusion of freedom precisely because one drifts away from hard reality and the illusion of intimacy precisely because one is linked only to a chosen contact at any given moment. Yes, these are treacherous waters for us all. Yet if the male is more “hands-on”, and hence more resistant to the electronic maelstrom’s currents, then his counterpoise could be a valuable decelerant as we attempt rationally to map out our future; and if his influence is to be felt less and less powerfully in institutions of higher learning, then that decelerant will not be available in the necessary strength.

Could it be, then, that part of the crisis posed by advanced technology to culture is the absence of males in the humanities?

John Harris is founder and president of The Center for Literate Values.  His most recent book is Climbing Backward Out of Caves: A Case for Religious Faith Based on Common Sense.