Highly Stressed Students and the Aimless Curriculum

AnxiousFemale.jpgWhen news came out recently that this year’s college freshmen rank their emotional well-being at record-low levels, observers in the media and the ivory tower began to wring their hands. Just how depressed are young men and women on campus? According to researchers at UCLA who conduct the annual “American Freshman” survey, the percentage of students who described their emotional health as above average fell to 52 percent from 64 percent in 1985 when the survey first began.
The experts interviewed on this trend suggested that the country’s financial woes were to blame. Brian Van Brunt, president of the American College Counseling Association, told the New York Times that “today’s economic factors are putting a lot of extra stress on college students, as they look at their loans and wonder if there will be a career waiting for them on the other side.” Denise Hayes, the president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, told the Chronicle of Higher Education: “College tuition is higher, so [students] feel the pressure to give their parents their money’s worth in terms of their academic performance.”
But the idea that money is behind all of the anxiety of college students seems an insufficient explanation, at best.


According to the survey, there has been a significant gender gap on this question since the survey began, and it has continued to widen every year. In 2010, only 45.9 percent of women reported good emotional health, compared with 59.1 percent of men. Why would women be more affected by worries about money than men? And why would their situation grow disproportionately worse?
One expert told the Chronicle that men are less likely to talk about how they feel. They’re just pretending to be happy to keep up appearances (on an anonymous survey, even). And another told Inside Higher Ed that men spend more time playing video games and watching television, which reduces their stress and contributes to their emotional health.
The simpler explanation for the gender gap in emotional health is that girls experience life in high school and college differently.
In their recent book, Premarital Sex in America, authors Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker survey the literature and make an air-tight case that the sexual atmosphere faced by young women today (both on and off college campuses) has severely impacted their emotional health. The researchers conclude: “Having more numerous sexual partners is associated with poorer emotional states in women, but not men.” Indeed, a number of studies have shown “a linear association between both lifetime and recent partners and indicators of poorer emotional health, and women who report the greatest number of partners display the clearest symptoms of depression.” Men, meanwhile, exhibit no negative effects at all from a higher number of partners or a shorter duration of relationships.
This reality–that the “hook-up” scene on campus is bad for women–is almost never acknowledged by the administrators on college campuses. College administrators and parents may profess to be concerned about the emotional well-being of students, but when push comes to shove they are unwilling to change the things about the atmosphere on campus that would really improve student life. Instead they maintain the mindset that 17- and 18-year olds are adults who can monitor their own behavior, when time and again they have shown that they cannot.
In the extreme, there were the shooting sprees at Virginia Tech and now Youngstown State, the murder of the lacrosse player at UVA, the hazing deaths at schools across the country and the ubiquitous sexual assaults, often fueled by alcohol. College students left to their own devices–in co-ed dorms, with few rules about alcohol or drugs, monitored only by some campus Keystone cops and protected from the prying eyes of parents by a long list of federal privacy regulations—produce a lot of chaos and unhappiness
Keeping students safe is the bare minimum for creating a (for lack of a better word) positive atmosphere on campus, but it is not all that is required. When colleges gave up acting in loco parentis, they did not merely give up on enforcing curfews (or the law, for that matter), they gave up their role of guiding students altogether, of forming their minds and their character.
confused-student.jpgCollege viewbooks today read like a “choose your own adventure” book. Students come to college to “explore” all of the “options” but with no particular end in mind. The thick college catalogs seem exciting to many at first, but how does a high school graduate even know where to begin? Even the most driven student cannot know what courses will be most interesting or useful or how to make them all fit together. As a result, the undergraduate education these days is more like a Chinese menu. Some courses from column A and some from Column B.
Lovers of Western Civilization and the Classics have lamented the demise of the Core Curriculum for years and indeed there are plenty of reasons to worry about what has replaced it. In a 2009 article in the American Scholar, William Chace, former president of Wesleyan, notices that “in one generation” (from 1970 to 2003) the numbers of undergraduates majoring in the humanities dropped from 30 percent to less than 16 percent. He blames the decline on the “failure of English departments across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.”
Chace continues: “What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture).” Faculty pursue their own narrow research interests instead of offering a broad undergraduate education.
He cites the Harvard English department, which recently replaced its year-long survey course for English majors with a series of “affinity groups” in which students would learn about whatever authors (within broad categories like “poets”) their particular professor finds important or interesting. Chace points out that under this system, the job of “cobbling together intellectual coherence” falls to the students themselves.
Let’s take a typical full-time undergraduate, enrolled in four classes of 3 credit hours each. On a typical Monday, he or she may have 2 classes—let’s say Women in 19th century American literature and an introduction to geology. According to the new report Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the average sophomore spends a little over 12 hours per week studying. So let’s say, in addition, he or she does a little reading for an animal behavior class. How do students make sense of a day spent in such pursuits? At the end of the semester, they have little more than a random collection of facts and theories, almost none of which will be relevant to their courses the following semester.
The haphazard nature of most college educations these days would be enough to make even the most emotionally stable college student wonder what they are supposed to be doing with these four years of their life. Since between classes and studying, the average student is spending only about 1/7 of their time in an academic pursuit, it is little wonder that students pile extracurricular activities or jobs into their schedules. At least with writing for the campus newspaper or working a shift in the bookstore or working the lights for a school drama performance, students will feel they have accomplished something.
The American Freshman survey didn’t try to determine if there is a correlation between student’s happiness and the amount of free time they have, but one assumes there must be. Certainly, this seems anecdotally true. I’ve known many students who come out of high school, “organization kids,” as David Brooks once dubbed them. They have had every minute of their days scheduled. But then they get to college and are faced with endless hours of free time. Some get right back into their routine, arranging their debate club meetings, applying for Fulbright scholarships and volunteering at the local soup kitchen. But other students never figure out what to do with all that free time. College is unlike anything they have known before and, for that matter, it will be unlike anything that comes after it.
We can debate endlessly about whether the purpose of college is to help us make more money or to help us become informed citizens or to make us more curious about the world around us, but whatever it is, it is not enough of that thing. For many students the college years are simply spent adrift.
In an essay in The Public Interest more than a decade ago, Robert Bartlett, a Political Science professor called his students “souls without longing.” He writes of the “malaise” he began to detect in them. Bartlett noted a “narrowness of students’ frame of reference or field of vision,” “the pettiness of their daily concerns,” and “the mediocrity of their ambitions.” He writes: “The world could be their oyster, but they tend to stare back at it, pearls and all–and yawn.” Bartlett blames this ennui—and the fact that more and more of his students seem to turn to drugs and alcohol to combat it—on a variety of factors, including a lack of religious belief among his young charges.
Maybe young people today are not serious enough because of a lack of religious upbringing. Students at colleges with a strong religious identity do tend to be more purposeful than those at secular schools. And in my observations, they often seemed happier as well.
But secular colleges are without a doubt making student problems worse. In their desire to pursue their own research interests, faculty have abdicated the responsibility to educate students broadly. In their desire to seem cool and nonintrusive, administrators have left students to their own social devices, with results that range from the disturbing to the disastrous. Meanwhile parents joke about the six-figure sums they pay for their kids to waste four years partying, thinking it will all turn out well as long as they can get a job after graduation.
Bartlett writes: “The direction [students] should find on campus proves to be as elusive and evanescent as so much else in their lives: Universities have by and large forgotten the Socratic exhortation to ‘Know Thyself’ that must guide an education worthy of the name. As a result, students are ill-equipped to know very much at all, least of all about themselves.” Is it any wonder they’re depressed?

Naomi Schaefer Riley

Ms. Riley is the deputy Taste editor of the Wall Street Journal's Taste page. She is working on a book about tenure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.