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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Activism gives bored, lonely students something to do

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators protest at Columbia University in New York on Oct. 12, five days after the massacre of Israeli civilians and two weeks before Israel struck back.Photo:Yuki Iwamura / AP

Students who've worked hard to get into prestigious colleges don't seem to have enough to do once they get there, writes Rick Hess, education policy director for the American Enterprise Institute.

While students at community and commuter colleges run between jobs and classes, "students at Stanford, Columbia, Princeton, Cornell, MIT, and Yale find the time to tear down posters of kidnapping victims, bully fellow students, cheer calls for genocide, conduct sit-ins, and make all those pro-Hamas posterboard signs," he writes.

Worried about students' social and emotional health, elite colleges have lowered expectations for academic rigor, Hess writes. Grade inflation has soared, especially in non-STEM programs. More than 80 percent of Yale students in "women’s studies; gender and sexuality studies; education; ethnicity, race, and migration studies; and African-American studies received semester grades of A," last year. "In economics, engineering, and math, the figure was a less otherworldly 50 or 55 percent."

Students complain of the pressure, but few are working hard for their A's, he writes. In a survey last year, 64 percent of four-year college students said they put "a lot of effort" into school, yet less than a third of "self-described hard workers" spend even two hours a day studying. "We’ve normalized a college culture in which students believe that 20 or 25 hours of class and study time combined constitutes a full week."

. . . elite college students have come to see academic work as an intrusion on the things that really matter to them. In the Daily Princetonian, a student recently lamented that the “mindless pursuit of academic rigor,” professors “known for assigning 200 or more pages of reading each week,” and “extremely time-intensive problem sets” mean that Princeton students “are often described by campus activists to be far less engaged with political protests than students at peer institutions."

Teen-agers and young adults are spending less time with friends, more time online, reports the surgeon general in warning about an "epidemic of loneliness and isolation."

"Increasingly, digital life has crowded out fraternities and sororities, activities like club sports and TV watch parties, and even dating and keg parties," writes Hess.

Young people are less likely to connect with others on the job. In the 1980s, 82 percent of college students had full or part-time jobs. That's down by half.

Lonely, idle and lacking a sense of purpose, "students seeking real-world companionship and belonging" turn to protest, he writes.

Hess wants colleges to reset the culture by raising expectations. Full-time students should be told they need to work a 40-hour academic week, including classes and studying, and trustees should look at annual surveys of "student workloads, audits of course assignments, and examinations of grades and grading practices" to ensure professors aren't going easy on students.

Cutting graduation requirements and pushing students to work harder would enable students to complete a bachelor's degree in three years, saving money and time, he writes.

Finally, Hess wants graduate schools and employers to stop treating "fancy diplomas as a proxy for merit, talent and work ethic." Ending credentialism in favor of looking at experience and skills would encourage students to build experience and skills.

"The performative bullying and woke madness we see on campus today are luxury products," Hess concludes. "The root problems are an epidemic of boredom, a lack of meaning, and an expectation of being coddled. Idle hands are still the devil’s workshop."

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