A new report about the state of health among Canadian university students has prompted the usual hand-wringing in the media. The Montreal Gazette, for instance, calls the findings “troubling” and “grim” and notes that many university students feel overwhelmed, anxious, and in some cases, suicidal.
Even without seeing the report, one might be skeptical of such reactions. After all, take any large survey of people and you are going to find some who are having a rough go of it. And given that university students tend to be younger, experiencing big life transitions, and under pressure to perform at a high level, a certain number of cracks in the foundation are to be expected.
But when I looked at the statistics for myself, I too was troubled. Just not for the reasons that everyone else is. I was struck not by how many students are having difficulty, but, rather, by how many of them are not.
According to this summary of the findings, 23 per cent of male students report never having “felt very sad.” More than 38 per cent of that same group report never having felt overwhelming anxiety. And notice that’s not currently feeling sad or anxious, or even recently. That’s ever. If this study is accurate, a sizable portion of Canadian university students have, almost literally, been living charmed lives.
Of course, it’s possible that the statistics are inaccurate. It may be that many respondents—especially the male ones—were simply unwilling to admit to having had strong negative feelings. That, in itself, I suppose is worrisome. But what if the numbers are accurate? If they are, they go a long way in explaining the behaviours of many of my first-year students.
The typical pattern in my first-year classes is this: They begin very well. Students show up, they pay attention, they laugh at my jokes. Then they get their first papers back and about half of them disappear. Many of them drop the course, and not only those who have failed those first assignments. A couple of years ago, one of my brightest first-years dropped the course immediately after receiving the highest grade in the class. Apparently, it was too low for her.
What’s the connection? Well, if a large percentage of students are unused to strong negative emotions—57.8 per cent of all students said they had not experienced overwhelming anger in the past year and most of those said they never had—then it is not surprising that they have, simply, no way of dealing with the harsh surprises that university is likely to present. Many of my students may well have gone through their lives to this point doted upon by their parents, supported unequivocally by their friends, lauded by teachers who wouldn’t dare give them a low grade—you get the idea.
Some suggest that this kind of upbringing, perhaps combined with social-media narcissism, has made today’s youth entitled. But my students don’t come to me and insist that they deserve a better grade. They just see a bad grade and run. In other words, I theorize that their blissful childhood has left them, not entitled, but irresolute. That is, many students lack the emotional resilience to deal with failure, and so they simply take the easy way out, drop the course, and, presumably, look for an instructor who will give them an easy A.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not in favour of needless suffering. And I don’t deny that a great number of students are suffering excessively and need help. But just as some exposure to viruses and bacteria help build the immune system, a certain amount of gut-wrenching emotional pain strengthens one’s psychological resolve. A university student should be able to look at a B grade—or an F for that matter—feel bad about it and then steel herself to the task and decide to do better next time.
And of course, many students do. But now I have a somewhat better understanding of why so many have run away at the first indication of failure. And it’s a sobering thought.
I was the first person who ever made them feel really bad.
Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.