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November 17, 2005

University Students: Today's students are no worse - and may be slightly better - than those of the past

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

Has the standard of UK university students declined? William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth - draws from his own experience of university teaching to argue that today's students are no worse, and may even be slightly better, than those of the past.

Are today's university students worse than those of the past? Most readers who are sympathetic to the type of views generally associated with the Social Affairs Unit and its web review may be expected to respond with an emphatic "yes" to this question, probably without a moment's thought. I can speak only from my own experience, as an academic in Australia from 1976-95 and since then as an academic in Wales. So far as I can see, the answer is No: today's university students are very similar to those in the past; if there is any perceptible difference at all, today's students seem slightly better. Despite the great expansion in tertiary numbers, they are not obviously worse. Such is my experience, with which anyone is free to disagree. This subject - just how good are students - is extremely complex, and is fraught with confusions and conflations that are well worth examining more closely.

I take it that tertiary education in the Western world has two explicit aims. Its chief aim - if this is not too pompous - is to produce a literate, articulate mainstream of cultured citizens from whom the future leadership of the democracy will emerge. Its second aim is to produce geniuses, the creators of new paradigms and the creators of life-saving and life-shaping innovations.

Perhaps it would be better to deal with the second point first. "Genius" cannot readily be defined and is in any case highly ambiguous. "Geniuses" presumably have high I.Q.s, but even this is not manifestly clear. What, for instance, was Mozart's I.Q., or Newton's, or Einstein's when he wasn't writing about theoretical physics? I.Q. tests and the like apparently measure the ability to reason quickly, but do not measure, and cannot possibly assess, originality, and nor can they measure the impact which any manifestation of originality is likely to have on the accepted paradigms and modes of thought of the day. I.Q. tests are irrelevant to Van Gogh's paintings or to any innovation in the cultural sphere. What education presumably might impart or engender, however, is a climate where a creative individual has the self-confidence to say something original.

This - the creation of a climate which encourages constructive originality - is assuredly one of the main aims of education at all levels, but especially at the tertiary level. In former days this climate was arguably encouraged by the Oxbridge high table clever-clever style, with its emphasis on the quick-witted voicing of paradox, aphorism, and witty elegance - at least by repute. It relied on a student body with a considerable degree of economic security and intellectual self-confidence, especially the products of the public schools. While something of this sort may still survive today, in most British universities lecturers have to deal with a mass of students who simply parrot the sources and fear - in some cases with reason - that originality will be graded down instead of up. Not until the third year of a student's stay at university do we see some students, and then only some, who have gained the self-confidence to say something original and interesting in their essays and exams.

More broadly in society, there appears to be some evidence that social and ethnic groups whose members often combine a high degree of marginality with high self-esteem tend to produce the more original and creative minds. The Jews, at least by repute in the modern West, are an obvious example of this, as were those small, endogenous groups like the Quakers and Unitarians in modern Britain which also produced very disproportionate numbers of intellectual achievers. The greatest achievement of an Oxbridge education lay possibly in engendering an ability to be intellectually self-confident: high self-esteem if not high marginality. American post-graduate education is probably superior to any other because of the positive premium it places on encouraging originality.

However, the broad mass of tertiary students are unlikely to wish to be any more original than they need to be. For them, the wider aim of tertiary education - producing a literate leadership element in a democracy - is the best that can be hoped for. In Britain, lecturers seldom ask questions about the "wider aims" of education, and many would regard the positing of such questions as intrusive or preposterous. This probably flows from the fact that tertiary students in Britain read only one subject, and are not required, in the three years they spend at a university, to undertake courses outside that subject, as they are automatically required to do in any American university, with its four-year undergraduate course.

The furtherance of this wider aim is also potentially thwarted by the fact that tertiary education must at all times build on primary and secondary education: we can only work with what we have received. All too often this is very mediocre, with a minority of students in any entering class who cannot write properly, know no grammar, and cannot express themselves cogently or clearly. We have to perform a rapid salvage job on this minority, with mixed results. Tertiary education is also at the mercy of the wider culture of the time, which today - at least by common knowledge and repute - is deeply hostile to literacy, reason, and traditional values.

One might therefore expect the outcome among today's students to reflect this relentless decline. But my own experience, to reiterate, is quite different, that standards have not declined in the generation I have been a tertiary educator. The percentage of semi-literate nincompoops among my students is no higher today than twenty-five years ago and might actually be lower. Conceivably, this might be a paradoxical outcome of my own experience, with Aberystwyth, an old and reasonably prestigious institution, drawing a progressively more able slice of students as tertiary numbers expand and the less able attend universities further down the pecking order. Among the students I know, another factor might - again, paradoxically - be the emergence of specialised television History Channel-type programming, which has created, legitimated, and fed a growing, not diminishing, interest in history and related subjects. For whatever reason, I have simply not noticed a decline, and I would guess that most other university lecturers would agree with me.

Does this augur well for either the production of geniuses or for a literate democracy? Possibly the circumstances likely to produce genius are worse than in the past, and educators might make a better effort to produce informed originality. As to society's future leaders, one might be more hopeful, and, for better or worse, it is a fact that nearly fifty per cent of eighteen year olds now attend a tertiary institution in Britain, compared with less than ten per cent only forty years ago. While no one believes that utopia is just around the corner, equally there is no compelling evidence, despite what one might assume in advance, that more actually means worse.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales - Aberystwyth.

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