Closed little worlds

American students are depressed, lazy and not learning very much, writes John Tierney on James Fallows’ Atlantic blog.  Tierney cites a raft of recent studies as well as years of experience as a college professor and now as a high school teacher.

I teach at an “elite” (effete?) independent school for girls in the Boston area. . . . Some of the students I teach work really hard.

. . . But, my sense is that most of the students at this school spend enormous amounts of time watching television, checking out Facebook, and otherwise engaging in totally unproductive activity. They certainly don’t read anything! In fact, I would say that the number one problem in contemporary American education is that students do not read enough. Their reading comprehension is horrible. Their vocabularies are impoverished. They cannot talk about anything outside their own closed little worlds.

In a follow-up, Tierney quotes an e-mail from a “beloved and prominent professor at a small liberal-arts college in New England,” who writes:

You know, I have a special place in my heart for our [Asian] students, who exhibit few of the troublesome traits you lament. The American students are nice kids, and I like them, but I don’t respect them. I guess that’s the thing.

There are intellectually curious, well-read and hard-working students out there, Tierney concedes. But he doesn’t think they’re the norm.

About Joanne


  1. Belinda Gomez says:

    American kids know that to challenge a prof is the sure way to a bad grade. Asian kids don’t challenge, so of course they’re the faculty darlings. American kids also know full well that what they learn in school has almost nothing to do with what they need to succeed in the real world.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Challenging a professor is not the same as challenging a teacher in high school or middle school. There are some bad apples, but by and large professors LOVE to be challenged. It makes them happy — provided the student is being thoughtful and academic in his challenge. (e.g., throwing feces at the podium and saying “Your lecture sucks!” isn’t what I mean by “challenging” the professor.)

    I agree with your sentiment, Belinda, that students learn this behavior. But it’s not in college that they learn it.

    I also agree that what they learn in school has little to do with what they will do in the world. But that’s a much larger matter.

  3. Michael–actually, the percent of ‘challengable’ professors seems to vary by school and by department.

    At my college, professors loved a good argument. But at the school where I worked while my husband was in grad school, they took any challenge as an insult.

    I think it might be b/c at my college professors were at the peak of their careers and felt secure. They could enjoy a little give and take. At the other school, many were trying to prove something, and those who weren’t were often bitter because they’d gotten ‘stuck’ there.

  4. Richard Cook says:

    Uh Belinda can you back up your assertions with some links? From what I have seen just in day to day interaction with high schoolers I would say Tierney is right.

  5. > American kids also know full well that what they learn in school
    > has almost nothing to do with what they need to succeed in the real world.

    Really? Math, physics, biology and all that aren’t useful in the real world? I guess that’s true if you aspire to be a massage therapist, bus driver or permanent inhabitant of the parent’s basement, but if you want to have a job that involves math, science or engineering, you’re going to need to learn everything you can in high school.

    Now, whether schools effectively teach any of these things these days is a separate argument, but that’s certainly what they claim to do.

    Here’s MY link:

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    “Math, physics, biology and all that” can be very helpful. They help you understand the world, and they can be fascinating.

    But very few jobs use even a small fraction of what you learn of them in school. In other words, to the extent that we market school as preparation for a job–“To get a good job, get a good education.”–students know that most of what they are supposed to learn in school is useless. It is a genteel con.

  7. The problem isn’t the kids – well, some of it is the kids and weak parenting. However, much of it has to do with an inefficient and unproductive one-size-fits-all education system that does little to help students find their way to the level of education and career they desire.

  8. Peace Corps says:

    Roger, I don’t con my students. I tell them the skills they develop to learn the material I teach are skills they can use when they get a job in the future. Most people I know that advance in their careers must be life-long learners.

  9. I wonder if the assertion,

    “There are intellectually curious, well-read and hard-working students out there, Tierney concedes. But he doesn’t think they’re the norm.”

    hasn’t always been thus. After all, there used to be something known as the “gentleman’s C.” And I remember my own college days – well, I was one of the “unusual” ones, as they say it’s the “unusual” student who becomes a prof – a lot of the students were WAY more interested in what was going on in their frats/sororities than then were in classes. And a lot of them admitted that they were in college for “four more years of adolescence” before they had to grow up and “join Daddy’s firm.” And a lot of people didn’t read. (Heck, I didn’t read that much, beyond what was required for class – 300 pages of Plato in a week for Great Books kind of eats up your attention for other things).

    But I do think there’s a disconnect now; I grew up believing that “adults” paid attention to news and civics, and a lot of my students now, they don’t seem all that aware of what’s going on in the outside world.

  10. Maybe it also has to do with the subjects the professors are teaching. My daughter is about to finish two degrees, one in economics and one in Asian studies (she minored in Korean). She dreads the courses in Asian studies because the professors want absolutely no discussion, especially if it disagrees with anything they may have said. No one speaks in the classes and the few times my daughter has spoken up the professors have been unhappy, one going so far as to politely tell her to stop. She got the message. She says it is has been like that in every class outside economics or business.