We have a tendency (and I mean every professor I know when I saw we) to sit around and complain about students, talking, especially, about the ways they don’t measure up to how we were when we were students. We’ve obviously romanticized our past selves, but, even when we’re more honest about how we were, we still believe our students just can’t measure up. Perhaps because I wasn’t that great of a student, I spend more time thinking about the ways students are better than I was, not only as a student, but as a citizen and general person.
They’re smarter. More and more of my students come to college already having taken AP or dual enrollment classes, already having read so much more than I had when I went to college. I hear people bemoan the high school curriculum, but it’s more a shift from a traditional canon of high school readings to a wider variety; they don’t read less than we once did, but differently. These are students who are doing advanced math and engineering and writing and art that I and my peers just couldn’t imagine. That doesn’t stop once they get to college, as we have students present original work at national conferences (and that work is good: I once saw one of our alumni present a paper he wrote in his Master’s program, and it was on a subject I wrote on in my doctoral program; I told him, honestly, that his work was better than mine, and he was at a lower level).
They’re more involved. We often bemoan their lack of political knowledge, trying to catch them out by asking them who the Speaker of the House is, showing how much smarter than we are/were when they don’t know (for the record, I would never have known the Speaker of the House’s name when I was in college; it’s Paul Ryan right now, if you’ve forgotten, as I honestly had when writing this post). However, these students, probably through the advent of social media, know so much more about what is going on in the world than I ever did at their age. They talk about wars and unrest across the world, and they work to try to end the -isms that oppress people here in our country.
Not only are they political engaged in a way my peers and I weren’t, they also are more involved in their communities. I hear my students talk about their weekends where they were delivering food to the elderly or working with a program like Big Pal Little Pal or finding new needs and trying to meet them. Granted, I work at a faith-based university, so that inclination would be higher here, but I also attended a similar college, and I spent my weekends (when I wasn’t working) sleeping late, hanging out with friends, and doing whatever work for school I needed to do for the coming week.
They’re more globally conscious. Again, a change in technology might be responsible for part of this improvement, as they simply know much more about what’s going on around the world, but they’re also more curious about peoples different than they are. They’re more willing to take risks and travel to places where they know no one. They want to meet people different than they are and learn as much as they can about others and the places those people come from. They know their view of the world is limited, and they want to change that through direct experience, not just reading or watching shows/movies.
Our students have their faults, as well, and I can certainly complain about students spending too much time on their phones or other devices, watching Netflix when they should be reading or talking to each other, but I also know that they are so much better than I was at so many aspects of life. We need to acknowledge those parts of their lives, too, not just the ones that annoy us.