A modest hit when it came out in the early 1970s, one of my favourite movies is The Paper Chase. It centres around the relationship between a brilliant young Harvard law student named Hart and one of his professors, Charles Kingsfield, who is imperious, intimidating and legendary.
In the film’s most famous scene, Kingsfield asks Hart a question in class one day to which the young student replies: “Thank you, I prefer to pass.” “What did you say?” asks Kingsfield. A smirking Hart replies that he has nothing relevant to say, but, when he does, he’ll raise his hand.
It’s at this point that Kingsfield offers Hart a dime to call his mother, so he can tell her there’s serious doubt that he’ll become a lawyer. Hart begins to leave the class when he wheels around and yells: “You are a son of a bitch, Kingsfield.” The professor then tells Hart it’s the most intelligent thing he’s said all day and asks him to take his seat.
I was reminded of that film moment when I read reviews of a new book, Campus Confidential, by two Canadian university professors. It’s an unflattering portrayal of today’s Gen Y kids, the baby boomer offshoots now flooding our institutions of higher learning.
According to the authors, today’s students constantly challenge the marks they get, are not well read, expect professors to bend deadlines for them and show no interest in meeting the many challenges that life will throw at them when they finish school. The writers blame much of this on societal permissiveness, materialism and a host of other factors.
Campus Confidential is not the first book to reduce a generation to a trite stereotype. And it comes at a time when we’re reading a lot about the so-called aimless, entitled, attention-craving brats now entering early adulthood. Invariably, most of these critiques are offered by boomers, the generation that raised these nasty kids.
Personally, I don’t recognize the pampered losers we hear about. Of course, there are kids in every generation who are easy to criticize and caricature when ascribing attributes to an entire cohort. But they aren’t representative of everyone.
Suddenly, today’s kids are terrible because they challenge marks? Students challenged professors every day, inside and outside the classroom back when I was a student in the ’70s. We marched on campuses, staged sit-ins and often missed classes to go on pub crawls starting at 10 a.m. Half the class was stoned in some evening lectures I attended. Authority? We hated authority.
As far as I’m concerned, today’s students don’t challenge authority enough.
Are we talking about the same kids that we, as parents, enrolled in after-school activities five days a week before we sent them to their room to do three hours of homework so they’d get the straight A’s they needed to get into university?
The ones being forced to pile up obscene levels of debt because a BA no longer guarantees them a job? The kids who do more volunteer work than any other generation before them? Are we talking about those narcissistic meatheads?
The ones who’re now discovering, contrary to everything they were told growing up, that dreams don’t always come true if you work hard enough. That you can’t be anything you want to be if you just believe. You mean those poor, misguided souls?
To me, the marvel is just how well today’s twentysomethings have turned out despite our best efforts as parents to wrap them in cocoons of self-centredness and privilege. They’re going to be just fine.