At Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts, where I teach, our faculty are part of a generation of scholars, writers, and teachers now living out the dream of tenure. And it is a dream--of job security and freedom of speech and pen. In some ways the tenured professors aging gracefully in our classrooms are the first generation in the United States to do so in the style they do. Many have both their primary homes and a second house on the coast. They enjoy social standing and good salaries. In short, many are in positions where it would be obscene to complain--and still they do.
What do we complain about? Mostly, the tenured ones complain about students who are unable to learn and how things have changed. Why are students listening more to consumer culture than their professors? Why won't they read?
There are two main reasons why there is a widening gap between the aging faculty and the contemporary students: one is biological and one is technological. As far as biology is concerned, since the American high school or common school was founded in 1890 the average age of physical maturity has dropped an average of three to four months per decade. Students who entered high school in 1860 were by and large unable to conceive or bear children. Today most students entering high school have this capability.
Leon Botstien has done a fine job researching this in his 1997 book Jefferson's Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture. Children entering high school are physically adult. They seek adult knowledge and, regardless how their families or schools treat them, they are biologically driven to gain that adult knowledge--primarily about sex but also about such adult concerns as violence, money, knowledge, power, and death. What is the result? The students consume knowledge from popular culture. They buy the knowledge they feel they need and aren't getting in school.
The effect of this on our lives in the colleges and universities is profound. For one thing, the students have been taught that their teachers won't tell them what they need to know. And they in turn have trained themselves to get knowledge--good, bad, and ugly--from video, television, film, music, advertisements, and the like. Coming to us, the students who used to know something of William Butler Yeats' The Second Coming are more inclined to bust a rhyme about "gettin" jiggy with it."
There is another reason why our students are speaking a different language than their professors: the natures of learning and cognition, and the design of knowledge, have changed. Students learn more readily from the filmic design of the screen than they do from text, and it's more a matter of form than content. According to R. R. Hassin, J. S. Uleman, and J. A. Bargh in The New Unconscious (2005):
Our senses can handle about 11 million bits per second (Zimmerman 1989; see Norretranders, 1998, for a detailed analysis). This whopping number is largely the result of our sophisticated visual system, which can handle about 10 million bits per second. The processing capacity of consciousness pales in comparison. The exact number of bits consciousness can process depends on the task. When we read silently, we process about maximum of 45 bits per second (a few words); when we read aloud, it drops to 30. When we calculate (e.g., when we multiply two numbers), we can handle only 12 bits per second. Compared to our total capacity, these numbers are incredibly small.
Colleges and universities are admitting what we might call multiliterate students--students literate in many media. This new multiliterate student clashes with the reality of schools in the West where, until recently, it has been regarded as self-evident that the road to education lay through books.
In The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education, an …