Wake up Sweetie, this is class

She sauntered into the room wearing the tightest hip-hugger jeans and a tee shirt cut above the navel to reveal a shinny ersatz diamond. Her skin was streaked with some kind of instant tanner; her hair was layered and frosted to a golden blond to complement the bottle-born tan.

A cell phone dangled precariously from her ear: She spoke loudly to the person at the other end, giving all of us insight into what seemed a floundering love affair. In her other hand she carried a soft drink and some fluffy pink concoction covered with spiked coconut.

This was not a spa or hair salon: rather, it was 8:15 am and my Future Teachers class had begun fifteen minutes earlier. Coming late was not new to this student or others of the unmotivated variety. This type of student literally has no idea of how privileged she is to receive an education.

The beauty queen had lost her way to the classroom earlier in the semester. After missing far more than the three permitted absences and receiving an Unsatisfactory on the Midterm Report, she reappeared with breakfast and the omnipresent cell phone attached to her ear. When I expressed surprise at seeing her again she blithely replied, “I was sitting in the wrong room. I waited for class to begin and when you were not there, I thought it had been cancelled.” How she finally found the class was beyond me.

Dedicated faculty members often lament the lack of motivation and lethargy that exists in classrooms. Several of us came to the conclusion that if we traded places most students would not notice that a different person was now teaching their class. My description of this unmotivated manipulated student is not an exaggeration. She can be described as a composite of many that other and I instructors have encountered over the years.

One highly respected Criminal Justice professor is a firebrand who has long held a reputation for excellence and for being able to capture the attention of the most students. However, she has noticed a marked change in student involvement over the past several years. Topics such as serial killers and the pros and cons of the death penalty barely raised an eyebrow. Toward the end of one semester, this same professor brought in selected segments of the old Clint Eastwood “Dirty Harry” films. The segments were chosen to illustrate changes in the police work over a period over the decades. Even old Harry and the gratuitous violence therein could not change the general lack of response in the classroom.

We professors began to speculate on why so many students had become unresponsive. Several students entered into our conversations. One who returned to school at age forty felt that many professors are burned out and put little effort into their classes. She described a situation in which the instructor took it for granted that students would sleep in his classes. He tuned out and assumed the same lackadaisical behavior. She was outraged that only two people handed in a term paper on time and the others received full credit anyhow.

Another student reported that an undergraduate school is now perceived as having little meaning: “Everybody needs to go and most know that parents will pay for it.” Now in graduate school, she was with motivated students for the first time. Her comments mirror that of a third year grad student at UCLA: “Some people put a premium on where they’re going to go in the future, and all they’re thinking about is graduate school and the next step.”

Perhaps it is time to remind students about what a privilege it is to be educated in many parts of the world. A study by University of Pennsylvania researchers Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman found that students in the United States are not meeting their potential because of “their failure to exercise self-discipline.” One can add to this assessment an air of entitlement: many students now approach their education as a product to be consumed rather than as an experience requiring their effort.

In contrast to the cell phone addicted, perpetually absent princess, there have been many students from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa that I have taught over the years. These students are shocked by the cavalier attitudes of American students, slumped in their seats, sleeping through classes without pencils or books.

I have such vivid memories of teaching in a one-room schoolhouse outside of Hanoi in Vietnam. It was the mid 1990s and all of my students were orphaned. They sat in a stifling hot classroom, intently listening to my lecture. These children had no shoes and the clothes that they wore were little uniforms, the material for which had been acquired through charitable donations. These children were so grateful for an education.

Of course, one cannot easily equate the experiences of two vastly different cultures and attitudes towards schooling. However, I am suggesting that some of our more lackluster students would do well to remember how much difficulty their ancestors went through to be educated. For a very long time, a college education was only possible for rich young men. High school graduates should be mature enough to realize much of the responsibility for success or failure at school must lie on their shoulders.