When Hope & Fear Collide: A Portrait of Today's College Student

Arthur Levine and Jeannette S. Cureton
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999
187 pp., $29.95 hc

Paul Trout

As the "communication" gap between college instructors and students widens--almost half of the faculty feel "less comfortable" with students today than in the past (128)--there are numerous efforts to bridge it. In this cause, Levine and Cureton amass and interpret a wealth of survey data to help college instructors understand and sympathize with the needs and attitudes of Joe and Jane College.

Their effort, however, is not entirely successful. Levine and Cureton (hereafter simply Levine) get some things very wrong, and, despite their best interpretive efforts, wind up painting a portrait of students that is not very flattering.

Let me start with what Levine discovers about Jane and Joe as "apprentice scholars." They find--this is hardly hot news--that many college students are academically unprepared to do university work. Nearly one-third of all undergraduates have to take a basic skills or remedial course in reading, writing, or math, up from 29 percent in 1976, even though many introductory college courses are now functionally remedial. And, as most instructors have found, many undergraduates are culturally illiterate, accepted into college without the background knowledge that would help them make sense of college material (8). Levin concludes that "a rising percentage of students are simply not prepared for the rigors of academe" (128).

Their research also reinforces the widespread impression that many college students are emotionally disengaged from academic values and goals (123). Students themselves report that many of their peers "'just get by and are more interested in meeting people than taking the academics seriously.'" Observes one student, "'About half the students don't care. The other half really care'" (122).

Their findings also make clear that the aura of a college education has almost disappeared. Whether a cause or effect of disengagement is unclear, but many students now view college as something to "work in" to their lives, only one of many activities and often not the most important (49). About 60 percent of students hold jobs while taking classes, 24 percent of them working full time (39 percent work full time at two-year colleges, 100). This double load of job and college may explain why 87 percent of students claim they "work hard" at academics, though research says they do not.

Levine also confirms the view that many students today are materialistic and careerist (like most adults, one might add). Seventy-five percent say it is "essential or very important for them to be well off financially, a gain of 12 percentage points since 1979" (136). Seventy-two percent say they attend college to make more money, "an 18 percentage-point increase since 1976" (116). "Whereas these personal and philosophic goals were the principal reasons for attending college in the 1960s, today they are at the bottom of the list" (116). Not good news for those teaching the humanities.

Although Levine doesn't directly examine this issue, some of his findings lend credence to the disputed claim that higher education is being dumbed-down to "accommodate" the academically handicapped students of the 90s. Sixty percent of students blithely acknowledge that it is quite possible to get good grades without their having to even understand the material (124). And, though students entering college are less prepared in basic skills than ever before, they nevertheless get "higher grades...than their predecessors" (xii). Finding no evidence of widespread plagiarism, Levine concludes that courses have become so easy that "students don't need to cheat to pass" them (126). Given this erosion of standards, is it any wonder that "student satisfaction with undergraduate education is amazingly high" (131).

Levine's most provocative chapter deals with campus "multiculturalism" and race relations. He finds that racial tensions on campus are increasing, with diversity issues being the main cause of conflict between students on three out of five campuses (62 percent, 72). In group interviews, students, he discovered, were more willing to talk about intimate sexual details than campus race relations. In private sessions, however, they used words like "scary," "frightening," "sad," "angry," embattled," "isolated," and "hopeless" to describe them (73).

Levine identifies four causes of "multicultural tension": 1) preoccupation with difference; 2) mitosis of student groups; 3) segregation on campus; and, 4) a growing sense of victimization. What Levine has done, of course, is isolate the defining traits of "multiculturalism" itself, at least as it is widely practiced on most campuses. "Multiculturalism" is obsessed with "difference" and the politics of race and ethnicity, teaches that certain minority groups are "victims" of an ineluctably "racist" society dominated by white males bent on oppressing them, and insists that these victimized groups require and deserve special dispensations and treatment to thrive, such as "race-sensitive" admissions policies, racial scholarships, "affirmative grading" (David Riesman), and segregated programs, classes, dorms, and clubhouses. The law of unintended consequences strikes again: it is because of a well-intentioned but misguided "multiculturalism" that almost every campus Levine visited is voluntarily segregated, and that "the American college is increasingly a place in which students feel they are being treated unfairly and others are profiting at their expense" (91).

Levine, from fear or ideological conviction, fends off this politically incorrect insight. He dutifully applauds "multiculturalism" for enabling minorities to "both perceive and value their differences more than their commonalities" (80), even though, just a page earlier, he bemoans this very effect and lists it first in his causes of racial tensions. There are other places where Levine also struggles to avoid or blunt the welcomed implications of his own research.

Levine entitles his book When Hope and Fear Collide because today's students, he contends, are torn between an optimistic view of their private, individual futures, and a very pessimistic view of the future of the country. According to Levine:

Students see almost insurmountable economic problems: the enormous national debt, the state of the economy, the scarcity of good jobs, rising poverty rates, unemployment, and the burden of entitlement programs. They speak of an endless array of social problems: homelessness, drugs, broken families, hunger, health care, violence, poor schools, and AIDS. They talk of deep and intractable divisions in the country, based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and political persuasion. They have cataclysmic visions of the future of the environment. Their fears go beyond the borders of the country to include tribalism, war, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, economic competition, and genocide. (143)

I have never encountered a student long-faced over the national debt or dumbed-down schools, but Levine--enthralled by his own survey data--has no problem accepting and endorsing the negativity and declininsm that spills out of students. Their bleak view of American society, however, strikes me as overwrought. Although the United States is no utopia, Americans today live far safer, wealthier, longer lives on average than anyone, anywhere, anytime in history. Life expectancy has increased twice as much in the last century as during the previous 200,000 years. Since 1900 our standard of living has risen dramatically, with the average American being nearly 7 times as wealthy today as then.

During the '90s, the economy has been nothing less than miraculous. Inflation is relatively stable, while buying power and overall income are increasing for all segments of the population. According to the Census Bureau, poverty is at its lowest rate in 20 years, and median household incomes are at an all-time high, while unemployment shrinks below so-called "frictional" levels. Since the 1960s we have also made great environmental progress, with industries being much cleaner and less toxic. Between 1991 and 1997 (the last year for which there are full data), the total crime rate dropped almost 17 percent, with violent crime reaching its lowest point in a decade. For the first time in decades, more than half of America's high-school students describe themselves as virgins, and the teen birthrate is dropping. More kids than ever are going to college, where they "earn" unprecedentedly high GPAs. On the world front, almost every measure of human welfare has been getting better, with the most dramatic gains in the Third World.

No wonder, then, that since 1972, 32 percent of Americans have consistently reported being "very happy" and another 56 percent report being "pretty happy," leaving only 12 percent "not so happy." Even the dour William J. Bennett, in his updated edition of The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, is optimistic about the direction of American society! But none of this good news seems to have made the slightest impact on the droopy spirits of students, who fixate on the dark side of our winning the Gulf War and the Cold War (19-23).

I'm not suggesting that students have nothing to worry about, or that they shouldn't complain about how they've been reared, educated, and socialized--because they have and they should. AIDS, although not much of a threat to non-drug-using heterosexuals, is a threat to others whom we know and love. Race relations have improved, but there is still way too much pent-up racial anger and resentment. And there is abundant evidence that many young people--aptly called the "abandoned generation"--have been emotionally and intellectually damaged by indulgent and disengaged teachers and parents and by a mass culture that promulgates violence, crassness, and ugliness. (Revealingly, students do not complain to Levine about the moral loathsomeness of popular culture.)

One of the most disturbing findings in this book is that "students are coming to college overwhelmed and more damaged than those of previous years," and using counseling services in record numbers and for longer periods than in the past (95). Colleges are now dealing with more "developmentally delayed or disabled students," more emotionally-ill students," more "dysfunctional" students than ever before (96). Obviously, students do deserve our sympathy and our efforts to repair the damage done to them (103-08). Perhaps we should start by not letting them wallow in self-indulgent cynicism and despair.

So why do students have such a biassed view of their country and its institutions, seemingly hell bent to make lemons out of lemonade? In large part because they watch way too much TV; TV trades in Bad News--and in exposing and often celebrating the worst, the seediest aspects of human behavior. Thanks to our tabloid culture and the relentless unmasking and "deconstruction" of Everything, young people now despise adults and the society they created.

Yes, other things also explain their reflexive cynicism, such as an impoverished education in history and current events, but it's their obsession with television that explains why students told Levine that their lives and attitudes have been most shaped by: the Gulf War, the Challenger explosion, fall of the Berlin wall, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Rodney King affair. Without diminishing the symbolic importance of these events, each was a "media" event, not some grand, historical, socially significant occurrence that tangibly touched in any practical sense the daily life of the average American. The Gulf War--which students over-dramatically claim was "their" generational war--was not the Korean War, let alone World War Two. The Rodney King affair was not the Selma march, let alone the civil-rights movement of the '50s and '60s.

Reared in a culture obsessed by victimage, students complained to Levine that the Challenger explosion shattered their idealism and sense of safety, destroying their faith in the technological know-how of their country. It did not occurred them, however, to find comfort in many NASA successes or in the daily triumphant of technology that we witness in the 27,000 safe airline flights each day. This move would have required historical and systemic thinking, something many of today's students seem incapable of doing.

Levine seems aware of this deficiency. While outlining a "curriculum of compensation," a sort of remedial program designed to compensate for what other social institutions have failed to give young people over eighteen years, he mentions both "critical thinking" and the study of our "human heritage" (161). "Only if we can teach students about the successes and failures, the evolutions and transitions, and the rises and declines of humanity and society can their hopes and fears be realistically grounded" (162). Precisely. If Levine had done this in his book, he might have presented a more insightful, and less maudlin, portrait of students who need not only to be understood, but to understand.

Although Levine squeezes the survey data for whatever good news about students is in them (they are supposedly "post-ideological" and have tolerant racial and ethnic attitudes), a lot of his findings do not paint a flattering portrait of today's students. Vast numbers of them, for example, believe that they will make more money than their parents (136), though few of them, in reality, will ever be as well educated as their folks. Many students sneer at the nation's social institutions, but then flatter themselves that only they "care about the country and society" (30). Most of them reject learning for learning's sake and need remediation or slack standards to get through college, but 83 percent proclaim themselves to be "intellectuals" (124). Large numbers of them are angry that they have "unfairly" inherited a "horrendous array of social problems, selfishly created by their elders" (36, 48), without stopping to realize that every generation inherits a world in need of repair, and that the world they inherit is pretty well off thanks to the intelligence and hard work of those who came before them. So, not much in this book convinces me that this "Generation without a Name" is indeed prepared--intellectually and emotionally--to fix "everything that is wrong" (35).

For a more profound and historical analysis of students today, one might go back to Ortega's still relevant Revolt of the Masses (1932), with its trenchant examination of the "terrible spiritual situation in which the best youth of the world finds itself today" (136).

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