At Inside Higher Ed today, William Bradley offers a humorous and self-deprecating essay on his memories of college versus the conduct he observes in his students. With every essay he finds cut-and-pasted from Wikipedia, with every mobile ringtone he hears during his classes, and with every complacent D student he meets, he wonders about the erosion of higher education in the United States:
“I had so much respect for my own professors,” I tell myself. “Yet these students seem to be mocking my efforts.”
It’s easy to understand why those who have been doing this for their entire lives might get frustrated, isn’t it? It’s depressing, to think that the college experience now is so degraded, compared to how we remember our own college years, a time of discovery and the excitement that comes with acquiring knowledge.
But then he remembers how it really was, and even comes to suspect that the “respect” he had for his professors meant that he didn’t get the most out of his education. Fear of admitting his own ignorance kept him from asking the big questions:
The student who had “so much respect” for his own professors, in fact, consistently fell asleep in his first English class — a survey of British literature that met at the ungodly hour (for an 18-year-old) of 8 in the morning. He once handed in a research paper without a works cited page because, you know, he had better things to do than edit his own paper before handing it in. He even showed up for a late-afternoon psychology lab after spending the early afternoon working on a six pack of Milwaukee’s Best and proceeded to giggle like an imbecile every time the untenured, undoubtedly overworked instructor said the phrase “sexual arousal.” The topic for the day was — you guessed it — sex, which meant that the juvenile snickering went on longer than even Beavis and Butthead would have found tolerable.
. . . . . .
So, though I respected their obvious intelligence and valued the insights [my professors] shared with me, my own admiration for them prevented me from asking them the questions I knew they could answer. My fear of looking foolish caused me to choose ignorance.
As a professor and as a human being, I’m very aware of how ignorant I remain to this day. And I know, now, that those professors I idolized — and idealized — must have been aware of how limited their own knowledge was, and were probably plagued by the same doubts that plague me. Part of being an educated person, of course, involves acknowledging how much we don’t know.
I admire Bradley’s honesty. And, by the way: that was me, too in college, only maybe worse: the Friday afternoon Western Civ lectures I attended only once in two semesters Freshman year; the evening seminars I blew off to go visit a boyfriend in the city; the 9 a.m. Art History course senior year (SENIOR year!) in which I regularly dropped off shortly after the lights were dimmed for the slide lecture. What a callous, self-centered jerk I was–and I was a scholarship kid, too!
Cue Bill Cosby’s bit about children, only substitute “college students” for “children:”
(The bit begins around 1:30 in this clip.)