Complaining about the latest dysfunctional generation is a familiar pastime and no one should be surprised to find similar cranky exposes leaking out of Vice. Drew Brown’s piece about how undergrads today are the worst is one of many recent attempts to discuss the problem with today’s undergrads and higher education more generally. But come on, are undergrads really the worst?
I propose an alternative perspective: grad students are the worst. Maybe. Here’s the thing: it’s not just the intellectual culture of young people you have to worry about. You also have to worry about the poorly trained and pitifully misused wunderkinds that decide to pursue graduate studies.
As a PhD candidate preparing to work as a contract instructor, I am all too familiar with the drudgery and myriad frustrations of being a TA, but as much as I empathize with the plight of the baby intellectual, I have much more compassion for the lowly undergrad. Undergrads have good excuses for being distracted, feeling self-important, or numbed by the inanity of coursework. Graduate students, however, have fewer excuses for bringing the suck to the classroom.
Can we really fault 19 and 20 year olds for not giving a damn about the political inclinations of 18th century French Revolutionaries or the fascinating “lived-experiences” of immigrant nurses in Australia? Throw in a sprinkling of post-neoliberal regulatory subjectivities, postcolonial discontent surrounding modernity, and Foucauldian “carceral archipelago” of something or other, and you have a heady mix of unpalatable and likely unthinkable slop that our future professionals are supposed lick up with joy. Bloody hell, their brains haven’t even finished developing!
I’m of course drawing a caricature of higher ed. There’s a lot of good stuff in there, but it doesn’t really matter what’s being taught: the approach is largely the same. Graduate students either excel at being too eager to the point of hysteria, or they massage their sometimes decade long indentured servitude into a tortuous presentation style reminiscent of the Economics Teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
We could blame the university for not training graduate students well, but what exactly are they supposed to do with the poor dredges and cast offs of society? If not for our big brains and sour dispositions most of us would be better off as sign-holders or embarrassing mascots for youth baseball teams.
Look, I love my job—to the extent that I actually have one—but let’s get real about something. Higher education is a business transaction. This didn’t creep up on us suddenly. It has been that way for a long time. Students are consumers, and I am not surprised that they aren’t driven to furnish the intellectual life of the West with a new kind of aristocracy. Heck, even graduate students are disconnected from the so-called “life of the mind,” tending more towards preaching than encouraging inquiry and critical thinking.
The Academy might be a mess, but its issues are symptomatic of a larger and much more complex problem than undergraduates not accepting free beer from a Newfoundlander. Go ahead and point your finger at capitalism, but leave the undergraduates out of it. If they want to pay to extend their childhood and occasionally read a good book, then let them. Maybe that distracted “failure” lost in the turmoils of late adolescence drops out and writes a bestselling novel. Who knows? Our jobs as educators is to reach the people we can reach and that should be more than enough.