Unhappy? I think students may be too happy.

This professor is troubled by a lack of resilience

Simon Fraser University (Simon Hayter)

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.




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Unhappy? I think students may be too happy.

  1. Very interesting professor. I think you are on to something. I home schooled my child. Contrary to popular belief, the opposite of coddled. She hit the ground running when she went to university, not burnt out and with no expectations. I didn’t give her marks. She either knew it or she didn’t. And if she didn’t we worked on it.
    She almost got caught up in the “marks”. We just continued to do what we did during home schooling. We discussed and debated and looked at things and education for what it really was. One of the most important comments I think I left with her was, ” So you went to university because you knew it all, or you went to university to learn it all?”.
    She continues to work hard and sometimes even harder if needed.
    I appreciate her profs, all profs.

    • I think contented people are the result of two unrelated phenomenon:

      1) lots of young adults today were raised on pharmaceuticals, they have been force fed anti-depressants, uppers and downers since they were in elementary school. I suspect that a great many of these kids have grown up into adults who are simply incapable of feeling any kind of strong emotion, or are capable of medicating away and negative thought at the first sign.

      2)This generation of kids grew up playing video games. Contrary to the authors assumption that they are weak and lack resilience, I think they are stronger than previous generation and better able to observe their status objectively. Kids who grow up playing video games are constantly bombarded with failure. They die all the time, thousands and thousands of times. I suspect that most of this generation has put in their 10,000 hours of practice failure before they even reach university.

      I know that when I started university I failed 3 of my 5 classes in my first semester. It did not destroy me, it barely bother me, I just went on to the next semester. If video games taught me anything it is that failure is to be expected on the first try; it is not something to be feared but is itself a learning opportunity.

      I also suspect that the data is gendered with women more likely to perceive a bad mark as a personal attack on their own self worth, eliciting negative feelings. Where as men view a bad mark as the result of incompetent markers, something they can’t control.

      • First, ‘phenomena.” Second, “…barely bothered…” You are welcome. I, too, can be the victim of auto-corrupt.

        What is the income level of the parents of these runaways? How many have had Mommy and Daddy bail them out of problems they have gotten themselves into? How many are in university for the degree and not the information or training?

        And many other questions relating to assumed priviledge. For example, how many times has this professor been pressured to inflate the grade of someone who is the spawn of one who has done a favour, financial or otherwise, for the institution?

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