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On the path to greatness, we voluntarily self-destruct.

On Tuesday morning, I arrived five minutes late to my English lecture, having prioritized grabbing a bite to eat ahead of attending a class that I was paying nearly $1,400 for. As I snuck into the back row, I caught snatches of my professor’s discourse, lamenting on his students’ inability to spell their TA’s names right. Pulling out my laptop, I frantically tried to recall whether my TA’s last name contained the ‘M” that I had written it as, or was it an “N”? To my horror, upon checking my last email from him, I saw that it was neither M nor N; it was a D. D, the precarious letter that stood for the disaster that my generation appears to be on the brink of falling into.

Midway through his speech, my professor was interrupted by a student who raised his hand to object to a question that was on our last exam. The student maintained that although he completely understood the importance of names, in both knowing them and spelling them, he failed to understand the significance of remembering the name of Amadou Diallou, who was the basis of one of the texts we were required to read for the exam, in a particular chapter of “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell.

I cringed inwardly; I could see my professor struggling to respond in a manner that was devoid of sarcasm. Fortunately, a student came to his rescue, pointing out that the professor had in fact highlighted the significance of that man during one particular lecture, something that the inquisitor would have known had he paid attention.

The focus of the beginning of the day’s lecture was dedicated to those students who were complaining about the difficulty of the exam. The number of people who found the four-part exam consisting of defining terms, passage identification and analysis, fill-in-the-blanks, and a relatively short essay was, to quote a former New York mayoral candidate, “too damn high”.

I could easily detect the note of distress my professor’s voice as he struggled to impress upon us an explanation as to why he couldn’t make the exam any easier: because it was already too easy.

Is this what being a college student has come to mean? Urging your professor to adjust your exam to make it easier than it already is? In this day where a focus on STEM majors and future business leaders leave liberal arts majors to be on the receiving end of unwarranted flak, I felt humiliated that the students who participate in the major that I so enjoy are providing material evidence to support the stereotypes.

This isn’t an issue that only students who major in liberal arts deal with. My professor went on to read aloud an op-ed published in 2011 by the L.A. Times on the declining status of college students, and how the focus of college evolved to solely marketing the university and bending to the will of students rather than actually educating them. However, the point of this article that he chose to emphasize is that the responsibility of this issue is not entirely carried by the institutions themselves; a large portion is to be blamed on us students.

These statements do, of course, hold the traits of a generalization, but the article acknowledges this:

To be sure, there were many exceptions to this dismal portrait of the state of undergraduate learning. Some academic programs and colleges are quite rigorous, and some students we followed pushed themselves and excelled. In general, traditional arts and science fields (math, science, humanities and the social sciences) tended to be more demanding, and students who majored in those subjects studied more and showed higher gains. So too did students attending more selective colleges. In addition, at every college and university examined, we found some students who were applying themselves and learning at impressive levels.

These real accomplishments do not, however, exonerate the colleges and universities that are happy to collect annual tuition dollars but then fail to provide many students with a high-quality education.

I am choosing to discourse on this matter simply because this is a truth that I have been struggling with for some time now. The proof of this fact surrounds me. Whenever I see a fellow peer stressing over an upcoming exam or an impending paper, it is often because they have left it for the last minute. The difficulty of the task in question is debatable; I don’t believe for a second that, outside of the exceptions of a barking-mad professor or a particularly challenging chapter, achieving high marks is impossible. Outside of class, many students seem disinterested in real-life situations. I can practically count on one hand the number of conversations I have had with other students regarding war, poverty, class and race issues: in other words, meaningful conversations that involve legitimate debating and fact-based arguments. Most of these kinds of dialogues involved uncomfortable aversions, a simple tsk-tsk at the occurring issue, and then the conversation moves on to a more superficial topic. I think Cherry puts it well in S.E. Hinton’s book “The Outsiders”, when she describes these kinds of conversations:

“You know, sometimes I’ll catch myself talking to a girl-friend, and realize I don’t mean half of what I’m saying. I don’t really think a beer blast on the river bottom is super-cool, but I’ll rave about one to a girl-friend just to be saying something.”

Where, along our paths to greatness, have we lost the desire to learn? Why are we opposed to pushing our limits, our boundaries, and challenging ourselves? Why are we now concerned with setting the bar lower, with making things easier for ourselves? Why have we lost the want to become more intelligent beings, to remain inquisitive and eager and thirsty for knowledge?

My professor continued to express the problem further, describing how students who came to meet with him during office hours were unable to withstand checking their cell phones for more than a minute. This last statement unintentionally exacerbated my personal struggle, because I was could not honestly consider myself separate from this group. Much of my own potential and that of my peers are going to waste simply because we are cannot detach ourselves from digital devices, be it cell phones or laptops or gaming consoles. The worst part about this is the way we seem to dismiss this as a trivial matter, under the pretense that we will somehow “catch up” to what we are depriving ourselves of. The truth is, there is no catching up when the list of procrastinated tasks grows longer and attributing it to the trials of youth. We pay little mind to our dismissal things like how much we truly understand our homework, how little attention we pay to international news.

Sadly, I have no concluding statement to these sentiments. The problem has been expressed, but the trouble is, how do we extract the solution?  I remembered Amadou Diallou’s name because I faintly recalled picking it up from the nightly news years ago. I happened to grow up and still currently live near that section of the South Bronx, and by the end of the recollection of the shooting experience, I was in tears. We should be searching for meaning this way in the material that we consume, not consider it an arduous to-do task. This, I think, is the first step to helping us students change our perspective on our education. This goes towards the academia as well, who would rather capitalize on the process of education rather than further it. For the students who simply don’t give a damn, here’s hoping these words from a fellow peer make any dent in your day.

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