Goodbye, Charlie Brown. Hello, Bart Simpson

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Students once identified with Schulz’s patient, hard-working also-ran. But today, everyone expects recognition–even if they failCollege and university professors across the country had some fun this past week forwarding to one another a National Post news item regarding the era of entitled students. Ellen Greenberger, a research professor of psychology and social behaviour at the University of California-Irvine published a study examining students’ sense of entitlement; entitlement to good grades and recognition regardless of quality of work or performance. In essence, the study reports that students feel they deserve a decent grade so long as they show up to most classes and at least try. This revelation hardly comes as news to those of us teaching at the post-secondary level.

For well over a decade, students have become increasingly demanding and adamant they should get a pass merely for being on the class list. Educators have become service providers, and students are now consumers in an academic world that is far removed from yesteryear.

Not unlike my colleagues, every semester I receive requests and demands to increase grades and give credit where none is due. I’ve had students insist that their stress-filled lives and exacting parents must be taken into account when calculating their letter grade. I’ve received angry e-mails that an assigned grade is “unacceptable,” accompanied by demands that I “do something about it at once.” I have a student who has been AWOL since the start of this semester and approached me three-quarters through the term with the vague explanation that she was going through a difficult time. Her solution was for me to revise the course format so she could get full credit for playing “catch-up” during the last few weeks.

We share these yarns during department meetings and recall our own university days when we wouldn’t dare confront a professor over a grade. Then we hypothesize about where this new attitude is coming from and how we should deal with it.

Perhaps, though, this phenomenon of entitlement should be considered a cultural inevitability rather than the end of the academic world as we knew it. The halls of academia have always been a microcosm of the larger society, and what’s happening in the lecture theatres and classrooms may not be so distinct from what’s going on in the real world, after all.

Without ever electing, or even coming close to electing, a single Member of Parliament, the Green Party demanded — and with near unanimous agreement across the country, was granted– the right to take part in the televised election debates; just like a real party with real parliamentarians. When the votes were counted, it turned out they hadn’t managed to mount a serious challenge in even one riding. But they “tried,” and for this they will surely be invited back during the next campaign. This is how things work in the real world.

For decades the Big Three North American automakers have been driven to the cleaners by their Japanese competitors. They ignored changing consumer habits and preferences despite a plethora of data confirming a need for new directions. They paid workers 50% more than the competition and gave their CEOs obscene bonuses as sales dwindled. In response, taxpayers will chip in billions of dollars so they can continue to perform miserably and high school graduates can pull down a hundred grand annually on the assembly line. This too, is how things work in the real world.

Public sector employees are often blessed with jobs for life. Seniority trumps performance, innovation and success. In many professions, teaching for instance, it is virtually impossible to remove even the worst-performing employee: another real-word example for college and university students.

It’s somewhat hypocritical, if not downright disingenuous, to lament student entitlement when “cap in hand” has very much become the new work ethic. Medal-less Olympians want more subsidies. Artists who can’t find an audience want bigger grants. The CBC wants more funding to keep producing programs no one watches. Now the banks want someone to pick up their tab. Aren’t we all entitled to our entitlements?

The post-secondary system is dominated by us Boomers who grew up watching the lovable loser Charlie Brown; an enduring underachiever to be sure. But he never gave up. He’d always try kicking that football one more time or attempt to woo the red-haired girl who wouldn’t give him the time of day. Meanwhile, our students came of age watching Bart Simpson, who is not only another underachiever, but takes a certain pride in it.
While Charlie Brown dealt with his enduring failures through self-loathing and determination, Bart celebrated them. In light of this paradigm shift in popular culture, the student era of entitlement is hardly out of line.

When all is said and done, a university education is all about preparing eager, young minds for the real world. In a nutshell, that’s what we pointy-heads do. So if students expect reward for little or no effort and recognition regardless of whether they succeed or not, I’d say we’re doing a helluva good job. – John Martin is an overpaid, under-producing criminologist at the University of the Fraser Valley.

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