For the past few years, I (along with the entire higher-education system in the country) have been faced with a riddle: Why is it that first-year students in higher education arrive with eyes gleaming, only, within three years, to become bitter, apathetic and frustrated?
The reasons are many and varied. According to Tzlil Avraham, who writes an interesting column about Generation Y on the Hebrew website Mako, it has to do with the system itself: It lies to students knowingly, and is sloppy, mediocre and lazy.
That may be part of the answer, but I find her analysis simplistic and one-dimensional. For the past few days I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of “Modern Romance,” by the American comic Aziz Ansari, and I think that I now have, for the first time, a more complex, more complete answer to the riddle.
Like many sociological explanations, the one I am about to present entails generalization. Not every student grows embittered, not all students come to academia the way they come to a date, but as a broad characterization (which, as noted, by definition eludes some details), I think Ansari’s thesis is worth examining.
In “Modern Romance,” Ansari shows how the concept of love and marriage has changed over the years. In the 1950s and ‘60s, he relates, a third of Americans married someone who lived within five blocks of them, one out of six married someone living in the same [immediate] neighborhood, and one out of eight married a person residing in the same building. They met, went to a movie, introduced each other to their parents – and got married. The average marriage age for women was 20 and for men 23. One of the reasons for this was because at that time, getting married was the principal way of leaving home and entering the big wide world.
People from that era who are asked why they married their spouse, say things like: “She was a nice girl,” or “He had a good job,” or “He was from a good family,” and so forth. Sociologists note that in the 1960s, the demands one made of one’s potential partner were relatively straightforward and often based on gender stereotypes: Women sought economic stability, men looked for attractive women (preferably virgins). Accordingly, the average time that elapsed between the first meeting and the wedding was six months.
At present in the United States, the average marriage age for women is 27 and for men 29. The younger generation is taking its time before tying the knot. One reason for this is that a new time slot, called “emerging adulthood,” has come into being. In Israel, this phase begins after army service and can last up to a decade. Military service is often followed by a major backpacking trip, completion of high-school matriculation, psychometric exams (mandatory for admission to many institutions of higher education), undergraduate studies and the onset of career-building – and only then is time made for marriage. During this period, young people take their time, check out the options and adopt a wait-and-see attitude that enables them to “examine the merchandise” before committing. After all, isn’t that better than the previous era, when you married the first guy who smiled at you and asked you out to a movie?
When young people today are asked why they chose their partner, they offer answers such as, “She’s my other half,” “I can’t imagine life without her” and the like. They talk about an intense, powerful emotional bond that is beyond compare, Hollywood-like in its nature. The emotional bar for entering into a relationship is dramatically higher; the search now is for one’s “soulmate” – and there’s no room for compromise.
Though a worthy goal, finding a soulmate is a wearying, fraught challenge, characterized by anxiety and insecurity. It’s hard to imagine many young people these days who are willing to make do with a database limited to potential partners from their neighborhood, much less the building they live in. By means of technology, dating services and apps, from OkCupid to Tinder, the whole world is open to them. Instead of four or five possible doors, a million are open to them, and the sought-after soulmate could be lurking behind any of them. Furthermore, even if you’ve already found one soulmate, there’s no reason to think that you won’t find someone who is even more of a soulmate behind the next door.
Every time you open a door, you bring a wealth of expectations to the ensuing encounter: This is the person who will make me whole; with him/her I will find serenity, determine my future, raise a family. But when the expectations are shattered, there is enormous frustration – and with it anxiety, insecurity, anger and sometimes apathy, resulting from the attempt to shield oneself from yet another disappointment.
Listening to Ansari, I couldn’t help but find an almost perfect parallel between the way young people conduct their frenetic love life these days, and their learning experience in academia.
By the nature of things, the faculty at local institutions of higher learning consists almost entirely of Generation X (born between the early 1960s and early ‘80s) and slightly younger people, whereas the students are Generation Y (born between early ‘80s and the early 2000s) and a bit older (shortly to become “Generation Millennium”), and the way they experience their academic studies is radically different from our experience.
I, for example, decided to pursue studies in sociology and political science. Why? Because these sounded interesting to me and I didn’t have many options with my middling psychometric exam score (death to quantitative thought!). I didn’t attend an introductory “open day” on campus, I didn’t meet with a departmental adviser, I didn’t conduct a survey among my friends, I didn’t try to talk to graduates or lecturers. I bought the university calendar, paid the tuition fee via mail and arrived on campus to organize my schedule. Did I have expectations from my degree? Not really, certainly not professional ones. It was clear to me that there is no profession called “political scientist,” and I never encountered want ads for sociologists. But the combination sounding intriguing, and that was enough for me. No one promised me a meaningful “learning experience” or “added value.” I never wrote an email to a lecturer or entered a faculty member’s office; I sat with 250 other students, and silence reigned in the classroom.
Twenty years after I entered the world of higher education, students arrive at its gates with a completely different set of expectations, and if on those you foist the spectacles of love described by Ansari – things will become clearer.
To begin with, today’s students have far more options. If in my day there were five or six universities and one college, today there are more than 60 institutions of higher education in Israel. The supply is greater than the demand, resulting in a constant lowering of the admission bar. It follows that a candidate with a matriculation average of 90 and above can conquer the world. Everyone will court him, everyone wants him. He faces numberless doors that are only waiting for him to enter, from within which he receives messages saying, “Hi, what do you say we meet?”
So it is now the students who interview the institutions, the schools, the departments and the faculty. Not long ago I received a message from a candidate who wanted to meet with me personally to hear about my “vision of media studies.” That was odd. Less odd was the fact that he never actually showed up. Many students come to these sessions – even before they are officially admitted to a school – with a glint in their eyes; they are in love. They ply you with all their fantasies, all their expectations; they see you as the gateway to their dreams. These are the students who have decided that you are to be their academic companion and partner. They have chosen you.
The relationship begins during the first semester of freshman year. Love is at its peak. Attendance is perfect. You meet inquisitive people with definite opinions who want to take part in your classes. They arrive thrilled, determined to make an impression of having just embarked on a romantic relationship. In the second semester – after a few months of acquaintanceship – there’s a feeling that “we still like you.” But, how can I put this? Initial signs of problems in the relationship are spotted. The students say, I got a low grade here (“An 80?!? With all my love for you, you have the gall to give me an 80?!”), someone didn’t speak to me nicely, you’re not ashamed to stick me with a statistics class at 10 A.M.?
The second year is the time of disillusionment. We’ve been together for a year already, and – how can I say this? – things just aren’t the way they used to be. The signs of erosion are evident. I will be teaching students that I also had during their first year, when their eyes were gleaming, but now the light has almost gone out. They are buried in Facebook, some of them don’t show up for classes at all. Is the course any less interesting? Not really. The same course I gave in the second year I’d given one or two years earlier during freshman year, and it was a bombshell. The very decision to move it to second year sealed its fate.
During sophomore year, you start to hear remarks such as, “Maybe I made the wrong choice,” “Maybe this isn’t right for me,” “Maybe I’m not cut out for this.” The well-known FOMO (fear of missing out) comes into play. It makes no difference that the courses are more advanced, the workshops more professional, the intellectual and educational value higher – the excitement is gone, the itch of being in love, so everything is filtered through the prism of, “Okay, stop making such an effort to impress us, we’ve already known each other for a year, right?”
Everything comes to a head during the third, senior year. The bachelor’s degree is about to be obtained, the time for forging one’s identity is about to run out. The students examine themselves and the choice they made, and compare it with their love fantasy, whose connection to reality is tenuous at best, and then – as in disappointed love, love that promised but didn’t keep its promise, love that betrayed – they dump all their frustration on you: I could have chosen differently, you don’t give me what I need, I didn’t get a thing from this relationship, I didn’t grow, I didn’t develop, I didn’t progress. The degree is crap, you are crap, the institution is crap, life is crap, the world is crap.
They look at their friends and are convinced that they made better choices (a built-in deception in the system, because everyone is frustrated to the same degree). Their frustration and anger only grow. At this stage, every attempt to set things straight, to offer any added value, to give them one last professional and academic push, is met with indifference, total disregard. Like sending a WhatsApp message to someone who has decided to move on – all you’ll get is silence. In part, their response is a projection of the confusion, bewilderment, anxiety and frustration within them, and is not directly related to you or your efforts. But there you are: a lightning rod for distress.
Before you give me the “Well, they’re media students, naturally they’re frustrated” routine – let me assure you: It’s the same in almost all the faculties, all the departments, all the institutions. Students enter law school with the fantasy of falling in love with the courtroom robe, cries of “Objection!” and fascinating cases – only to discover that the last thing they want to do is find a job in a country that has an intolerable glut of lawyers, stand in crowded and overburdened courts, or chase and sometimes sue clients who don’t pay. Students who enter schools of business administration discover that they’re studying for a quantitative degree and that there isn’t actually a profession called “business administrator.”
The same is true of the other disciplines – in the humanities and the social sciences, in the arts and even in the exact sciences. There aren’t a great many differences between students of architecture or education and students of medicine, chemistry or mathematics. No one is waiting for them, either, and they too discover that studies are sometimes banal, oppressive, demanding; they too ask themselves why they went to all that trouble. The exceptions are the computer science students, who know that the market is waiting for them eagerly. What they don’t know, or what they repress, is the fact that at the age of 40 they’ll be thrown out like a used napkin, like soccer players whose time has passed.
Socks and diapers
It has to be admitted honestly that everyone is playing the academic Tinder game. The applicants project their love strategy onto the academic realm, not understanding that it is a mistaken strategy and an essentially different relationship. And for their part, the institutions, without exception, mount a well-crafted presentation whose whole aim is to make the applicants fall in love, without bothering to set them straight about this being academia and not a relationship with a partner. But even a relationship with a partner isn’t always a bed of roses. After the falling-in-love stage, you have to buy cheese in the supermarket and get up in the middle of the night for the crying baby. “What kind of boring stuff is this?!” the couples rant. Well, it’s life.
Think about a relationship between a couple that married two years ago. Are there sparks? No. Is there anything new you can still show the other side? Maybe, but probably not. She already knows what you order in the restaurant, is familiar with your jokes and with your taste in clothes. In some cases, if she could – and in academia she can – she’d tell you, “I’d rather work another shift than go out with you.” (This goes for both sexes, by the way.) Similarly, in the advanced stages, there are two types of students in the classroom: Those who are still in love with you (academically, of course, only academically) and those who understand that the relationship between student and academia is not based on love but on education, and that even a romantic relationship is not an endless syringe of the love hormone oxytocin, but an endless pile of socks and diapers. What about the other students? Poof, they disappear.
Of course, the structural problems of the system have to be factored in, too: burned-out lecturers, outmoded courses, obsolete teaching methods. That’s all true, but still, when one understands the frame of mind of the students, the emotional background to their choice and the way they see themselves and the world around them – it’s clear that the problem is broader in scope.
Is there any way to fix all this? Not necessarily. Today’s students are born into a world that behaves entirely like one big Tinder app, so they use the same strategy for almost every major decision: relationships, studies, jobs. The institutions, for their part, are in increasingly acute competition, and have to cope with chronic budget shortfalls. Accordingly, there is no limit to what they are ready to promise if only you choose them – something that makes it difficult for them to fulfill their promises. But the gloomy reality is that it makes no difference how great an effort they make to keep their word; for the most part, and for most people, the disappointment is built in to the method.
It sounds depressing, but for me at least, understanding the problem opens the way to a solution, a track by means of which it’s possible to start changing the approach, a hope for creating a different relationship that does not have intrinsic disappointment at its end but the understanding that this is a short, limited period that will not recur and from which one should take whatever is possible. And it is possible.
Yuval Dror is dean of the School of Media Studies at the College of Management Academic Studies.