The “Tolerant” University

In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu said, “It is not young people who degenerate: they are ruined only when grown men have already been corrupted.”  If this generation of undergraduate students lacks civility and responsibility, we can blame, in part, their professors.  I am somewhat to blame, because I taught at Canadian universities for 38 years.  However, in my defence, I told students “I’m slaving away in this House of Correction trying to instill these social values in your minds and hearts.”

As a sociologist of education, I have taken a particular interest in listening to students and observing their behaviour.  I am also a co-author of Recent Social Trends in Canada 1960-2000, and I wrote the chapters on education.  Since the 1960s, the number of university students has expanded much faster than the increase in the population.  With this expansion, there has been a decrease in academic standards and an increase in incivility.  Some of the attitudes and behaviour that are becoming more common on university campuses suggest that students are replacing traditional values with emergent ones based on a pervasive modern philosophy – relativism.  Universities need to become more serious about educating undergraduates and re-establishing and enforcing codes of conduct.

University Demography

David Foot and Daniel Stoffman, the authors of Boom, Bust, and Echo: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift, say that demography may not be everything, but it is certainly important in understanding present conditions.  University enrolment has increased from 113,864 full-time students in 1960 to 847,980 full-time equivalent students in 2009 (Statistics Canada did not record part-time students until 1963).  This represents more than a sevenfold increase over the 50-year period when the population of the country increased from slightly less than 18 million to slightly more than 34 million, less than a twofold increase.  During the same period, Master’s students increased by almost tenfold, and Ph.D. students increased by slightly more than twelvefold.  At present, slightly more than 16 per cent of the full-time equivalent students are graduate students (139,684), and there are now, for the first time in our history, more Ph.D. students (40,969) in Canadian universities than there are full-time faculty members (38,904).  In addition, the number of female students has increased from about 27 per cent in 1960 to 57 per cent in 2010.  Females now represent almost 58 per cent of undergraduate students, 56 per cent of Master’s students and 47 per cent of Ph.D. students.

These changes have important implications.  Foot and Stoffman, along with a number of other commentators, have suggested that university courses and programs – both undergraduate and graduate – have become easier largely because of the increasingly diverse cohorts of students and a loosening of professors’ expectations.  By mathematical necessity, over the years an increasing percentage of the less-able students have enroled in university programs.  Thus, professors are expecting students to read and write less while rewarding them with higher grades.  In Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa note that academic standards, specifically critical thinking, are surprisingly low even at the top-ranked U.S. universities.  Nevertheless, even with falling standards in both Canada and the United States, fewer than 60 per cent of the first-year undergraduate students graduate within six years and fewer than 50 per cent of Ph.D. students graduate within 10 years.

The Indulgent University

At a recent workshop for Canadian university administrators, The Revitalization of Undergraduate Education in Canada, Dr. Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University, noted in the keynote address that universities have “lost their way.”  He said, “The focus has been way down at the end of the university funnel: at graduate studies, R and D, big science ….  We lost sight of the broader promise of the universities and lost connection with our broader communities,” which, of course, results from doing an excellent job of teaching undergraduate students so they graduate and become productive citizens.

Of course, the good and excellent undergraduate students are as good as they have ever been, and they are doing well because the universities still serve their needs; but there are many more weak students, those who are not well-prepared or who are unmotivated, and they are not doing well because universities take their tuition fees and let them drift.  In addition, over time, many students’ notion of socially acceptable behavior has deteriorated and professors and administrators have done little about it.

Dressed-down Decorum

One of the most obvious signs of the change in behaviour is the ubiquitous baseball hat that students, both male and female, wear in university classrooms.  Another sign is the T-shirts that some students wear with expressions that are probably intended to shock older, more-conservative people: “I’m sexy.  Take me home,” “YouTube Myspace and I’ll Google Your Yahoo,” “I’m a swimmer – the best breast stroker on campus.”  Another sign is the provocative clothing that some female students wear, revealing more of their bodies than students did in the past.  (As a side note, I often thought of telling my female student teachers that they should not go practice teaching dressed as they do for university classes, but I never had the chutzpa to tell them to dress more modestly.)

More disturbing to my generation is the way students speak and write.  Today, it is common for undergraduate students to address their professors by their first names and not with the honorific titles “Professor” and “Doctor,” which have been used for hundreds of years.  In fact, I have received e-mail messages from students with the salutation “Hi Ya” and the message saying, “I can’t hand my essay in till Friday.  I would like it returned by Monday.  If you have any problems, send me an e-mail.”

Mark Milke said today’s young people are “the cursing generation.”  He reported an incident where three young female students were walking along a public path at the University of Calgary and one exclaimed, “This ‘b***h’ needs to eat” so loudly that not only her friends heard her but so did other students and professors.  Undoubtedly, most professors have heard similar exclamations or the omnipresent “F-bomb” thrown around casually by students.  In the past, students rarely used such words when adults were present, and if they were caught cursing they felt ashamed.

“I’m Sexy and I know it” – But Not Much Else?

Another example is the experience a group of adults, including some faculty members, had in the gritty grotto, an area for weight lifting and running in the Physical Education building at the University of Manitoba.  The music over the public address system was offensive to these professors, the parents of young children and some students, because the lyrics were about explicit sexual behaviour.  The people who were offended circulated a petition that asked the dean of the faculty to have the music stopped.  They obtained approximately 70 signatures and presented it to him.  He told the petitioners that the student council was responsible for the music, and he would not overrule the council.  After a number of e-mail exchanges trying to convince the dean to stop the music, a professor wrote a letter to the president quoting some of the offensive lyrics.  Not surprisingly, within two days the music stopped.  The point is that the dean would not assert his authority to stop the music even when a large group of people thought it was in poor taste.

Texting during lectures is another sign of incivility and irresponsible behavior.  During the last 10 years, I have had a number of students who insist on texting on their cellphones during the time they should be engaged in classroom activities.  I try to shame these students into paying attention by joking that they have “IFS – Itchy Finger Syndrome – a syndrome in which you must be in constant contact with your mothers.”  I get a laugh from most students, but my attempt at embarrassing the “IFS students” does not always work.  Some still try to send and receive messages by holding their cellphones under their desks.

Rise in Cheating

Even more disconcerting is the substantial increase in the number of students cheating.  Recently, Maclean’s magazine reported that more than 50 per cent of Canadian university students admit to having cheated on assignments and exams.  There are, in fact, many online essay mills such as www.termpapersonfile.com and www.papertopics.com that provide term papers to students, at a price, on virtually any subject.  Maclean’s also reported that Professor Christensen Hughes, president of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, conducted a study that showed that 46 per cent of Canadian faculty members and 38 per cent of teaching assistants said they had ignored cases of suspected cheating.  More outrageous, Christina Hoff Sommers, in a chapter she wrote for Bringing in a New Era in Character Education, quoted a philosophy professor who said on national television in the United States that students should cheat when they find an assignment too burdensome.

Relationships on Campus

Finally, as mentioned previously, in the early 1960s, the sex ratio on campuses was more than three males for every female.  Economists tell us that, in principle, rare objects, gold and diamonds, for example, are often highly valued.  Thus, females were probably more highly valued when they represented less than 30 per cent of the population of university students.  Male students fortunate enough to have girlfriends treated them with respect, because they knew that they could easily lose them to more-considerate males.  At that time, university students indicated that they were going steady when a young woman wore her boyfriend’s school ring.  Later, if things worked out, they would become formally engaged and then married.  That was the plan, and most often, it was carried out.

Today, relationships between the sexes are much more fluid.  The demographic evidence shows that fewer young adults are getting engaged and marrying, and many more are hooking up and having friends with benefits, which indicates that they have little, if any, commitment to each other.  These students are having sex without love, and marriage is not the objective of either person.  In The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies, Anthony Giddens, the esteemed British sociologist, contends that many Western societies are being transformed from a marriage culture into a relationship culture where young people focus on sexual satisfaction above love and commitment.

Understanding Students’ Authentic Selves

No doubt, the incivility and irresponsibility of some students is very discouraging to the many honest and respectful students, the many serious and scholarly professors and the many dedicated and competent administrators.  Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that Montesquieu was correct when he said that adults have participated in corrupting the young.  It is clear that an increasing number of university students do not realize, or care, that wearing hats and revealing clothing, texting in class, addressing professors by their first names, using disrespectful language and even cheating on assignments and exams depart from traditional values.  As well, it is equally clear that a substantial number of professors and administrators have done little to curb this behaviour.

Throughout their schooling from kindergarten to university, students have internalized the lesson of relativism, both in its cultural and individual varieties.  In their minds, cultures differ, but there is no way of judging them as being good or bad, moral or immoral.  Moreover, to these students, every individual has a point of view, and there is no absolute truth; people only have relative, subjective values depending on their cultural and individual experiences.  As such, throughout their schooling, these students have been coached and cajoled by their peers, and unfortunately with the support of increasingly more teachers, into believing that their wishes, desires and behavior are, without a doubt, good because they represent their authentic selves.  No wonder many university students are unconstrained by traditional social values.  In their minds, intolerance of the authentic self is the only absolute wrong.

In the culture of relativism, the language of civility and responsibility, so familiar to these students’ grandparents, is missing.  To students, these social values are archaic and have little, if any, relevance to their lives.  But, in the past, these values were used to confer status on students by professors who were serious about guiding them into mature adulthood.  In the past, professors were more likely to show their intolerance toward incivility and irresponsibility.  Professors had a right to judge students, and many students responded by  shaping up; that is, they changed their behaviour.

Even though civility and responsibility are degraded in universities, these values still have a modicum of support in the wider Canadian society.  For example, males and females are still offended when they hear specific, but different, words about their character.  For men, honour has traditionally meant bravery while for women it has meant chastity.  Thus, it is a serious insult, even today and even if it is true, to say that a man is a coward or a woman is a slut.  Similarly, Christians understand the importance of responsible behavior when they recite the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed: “Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead.”  Christians also know that Jesus expelled the money-changers because they were dishonoring the synagogue.  Devout Muslims live by the dictates of Islamic religion and culture.  Likewise, the military and police forces are serious about their codes of honour.  Even street gangs are serious about codes of respect.  They know that dissing – disrespecting – others is dishonoring them, which often leads to physical violence.

Today, the social values of civility and responsibility have become weaker in Canadian society, but they have not entirely disappeared.  However, relativism, leading to the tolerance of bad behavior, pervades universities (and public schools), and it has pushed civility and responsibility to the sidelines in the everyday social interaction of students.  In the recent workshop on revitalizing undergraduate education at Canadian universities that was mentioned above, Campbell captured this sentiment when he said, “We all feel and know that the character of the undergraduate experience has deteriorated in our lifetimes, especially so in the last decades.  And we know in our heart of hearts that this experience can and should be much better.”

I hope that universities are beginning to realize that they are responsible for transmitting some of the traditional social values, particularly responsibility and civility, to their students.  To do this, universities must refocus on teaching undergraduate students, as Campbell said, so that many more graduate with degrees, and universities must re-establish – and enforce – stronger codes of conduct that will help students learn what it means to live in an intellectual and moral community.

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