Are American Students Lazy?

Submitted by Scott Jaschik on January 4, 2010 - 3:00am

Gather faculty members together and it's not hard to get them talking about the ways students disappoint. They text in class, expect extensions for no good reason, and act surprised when they don't earn A's.

But when it comes to work ethic and manners, are there some students who -- on average -- don't disappoint?

Kara Miller thinks so -- and her comparison of American students (who continually disappoint) and foreign students (who don't) has set off quite a discussion in Boston. Miller, an adjunct who teaches rhetoric and history at Babson College, publishedher views[1]inThe Boston Globejust before Christmas, and the debate has continued through the holiday period.

"My 'C,' 'D,' and 'F' students this semester are almost exclusively American, while my students from India, China, and Latin America have -- despite language barriers -- generally written solid papers, excelled on exams, and become valuable class participants," Miller wrote. She noted that many of her foreign students have difficulty with English, but make up for that with hard work. Her American students, meanwhile, appear challenged by work.

"Too many 18-year-old Americans, meanwhile, text one another under their desks (certain they are sly enough to go unnoticed), check e-mail, decline to take notes, and appear tired and disengaged," she wrote. Given that many American students arrive at college without basic skills, she wrote, "we've got a knowledge gap, spurred by a work-ethic gap."

The response was immediate and intense. Hundreds of people posted comments.

Many of the Boston area's professors appear to think Miller has a point. "I know this author will be criticized for this article, but based on my decades of college teaching experience she is exactly right," wrote one. "What she leaves out is that we are dealing with a generation of students that have been left behind by No Child Left Behind, supervised by 'Helicopter Parents.' Students now feel entitled to high grades despite little work and want their hands held on every assignment, while they are unable to think for themselves."

Another professor wrote in: "I used to be a university faculty with a joint appointment in engineering and management schools -- the biggest difference I noticed with domestic and international students was the ability to handle criticism. Domestic students tended to be very defensive when pointing out what can be improved."

That professor wasn't alone in finding Miller to be correct outside of her fields. Another comment said: "I've been an adjunct teaching engineering for 10 years, and I see the same trends. Even in engineering classes, many of the U.S. students expect to be given A's for inhaling and exhaling, and look at you like you have four heads if you suggest that perhaps coming to class, doing homework, and studying might improve their grade."

Some who had experience teaching international students noted that students who cross oceans to study in the United States are highly motivated, and so are not necessarily a fair comparison for the average American.

Several comments suggested that while Miller was correct in noticing differences between American and non-American students, she might not be giving enough credit to the creativity of Americans. A graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrote that when he teaches undergrad sections, he's also annoyed by the texting.

But following rules rigidly has a down side, the comment said: "My lab has a large number of foreign postdocs, who've been brought up in an environment where they've learned to be obedient and diligent. They end up lacking in leadership and creativity, and this shows up in their ability to be effective scientists. The American/Western postdocs tend to be more independent and creative in their approaches to problems, something that I attribute to the American emphasis on creativity rather than knowledge. Maybe we need a mix of cultures to truly produce the most effective students."

Plenty of less than thoughtful comments mocked either Miller's students or Miller, suggesting she must not be a good teacher. And others defended the right of American students to act as they wish. "Sounds like a typical egghead liberal professor who think there's a correlation between the classroom and the real world," wrote one. "Sorry, teach, but our American kids know that college is for boozing, drugs and hooking up. They'll start working hard when it matters -- the day they get their first job."

Ina follow-up piece,[2]Miller noted that the headline on the piece -- "My Lazy American Students" -- hadn't been her suggestion, but that she stood behind her ideas.

TheGlobepublisheda piece by a Babson student[3]who is American, taking issue with Miller. The student, Lauren Garey, noted that Babson is known for its business programs, but Miller teaches liberal arts classes, creating a possible mismatch between Miller's sample and the average student. Further, Garey said that Miller was overlooking the hard work of many American students.

Dennis Hanno, Babson's undergraduate dean,blogged[4]his objections to Miller's essay. Hanno defended Miller's right to have her views on Babson students, but said that "having worked in higher education for over 20 years, it would be easy for me to produce anecdote after anecdote -- and real data derived from the performance of students at Babson and elsewhere -- that would illustrate the folly of ascribing the term 'lazy' to any one category of students."

In an interview, Miller said that she has been an adjunct for 18 months and has classes scheduled for next semester. She said that readers shouldn't assume she is writing about Babson alone. Miller earned her doctorate in English at Tufts University, teaching there while a graduate student, and she said her experiences there with American and international students were similar. And she also had similar feelings when working in grad school as an SAT coach.

"I think a lot of people read my article in a polarizing way, but I have a very strong feeling that there are many Americans who are hard-working, creative and doing very well," she said.

While many have viewed the piece as a commentary on Babson, Miller said she views the piece more as a critique of what happens to students before they arrive at college. She said that it's in high school -- and earlier -- that students should be learning study habits and the idea of showing respect for those who teach them. She also said that those who argue that the American educational system is far more successful than others at encouraging creativity are missing her point.

"I love creativity and I embrace creativity, but it has to be coupled with discipline, and the idea that people would text during class, well that's troubling," she said. "American needs a little more discipline."

So when Miller was a student, did she ever text in class? Miller said that the technology hadn't yet arrived. "I'm sure I passed a note in class some time, but I think I was pretty respectful."

Teaching and Learning[5]

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