Experts on the young never tire of spouting generalizations about the ease or difficulty of growing up. This issue is central to understanding higher education. In “Has Childhood Changed?,” Steven Mintz counters Larry Cuban’s confused response to “Are today’s children different than children in the 1890s?”—No.
I have several objections. First, the question is ahistorical. How could “children” not change over more than a century? Second, it is impossible to generalize about “children” as a whole. Differences among young people—by class, gender, race, ethnicity, geography, experience, and age itself, and individually—are powerful.
Third is the persisting confusion of prescriptive evidence—advice to the young—with descriptive evidence from diverse sources. For example, Mintz agrees with Cuban that more children today than in the 1890s “are raised in single-parent homes and experience their parents’ divorce.” This ignores early parental death, desertion, and informal separations, all commonplace.
Turn to college students since the 1960s. There are profound changes, many negative. I combine research with observations as an undergraduate in the late 1960s, a graduate student in the 1970s, and a professor for the next 42 years.
“Myths” of changelessness, progress, or rises and falls are ideological. The U.S. college student population, led by whites, began its modern transformations after World War II with the GI Bill and the expansion of public education. The experiences of late adolescents and early adults growing up form a baseline that is ignored.
My generation attended an expanding variety of colleges amid conflicts over race, gender and civil rights; urban and suburban changes; the Vietnam War; and a modern technologizing economy, which contributed to rising enrollments. Many factors often associated with the 1980s and later played earlier. Business and STEM programs grew with students under pressure to choose majors and careers
At the same time, it was a more open, optimistic, social and broadly educational time. The period represented for many (though not all) an unusually positive moment.
From our freshman dormitories to classrooms—with more open spaces in between, students interacted across many lines, more actively than recently. Intellectual, social, cultural, and political interests brought undergraduates and graduate students together more often.
Although we screamed loudly when tuition reached $600/quarter in 1970, I balanced costs with scholarships, loans, family contributions, and summer hard labor. I graduated with about $2,000 debt, which I paid off promptly after graduate school deferral.
Faculty-student relationships were distinctive. Faculty were more involved in advising. My advisor expected to see us. He invited me to dine with his family. He offered to write recommendations for fellowships and graduate schools. We spent hours studying the printed Guide to Departments of History.
Faculty varied in their politics and their expressiveness. Some welcomed conversations and interactions; some integrated current events—almost always when relevant—into courses. Faculty and students were often interested in each other as people, and mutual teachers and learners.
These relationships heightened in graduate studies where a number of my professors became lifelong friends and colleagues. They never relinquished their constructive criticism. That became rare.
Over recent decades, these elements have almost disappeared. Growing up has narrowed and darkened. Fears of straightened economic futures are too great for 18—22 year olds without student-oriented programs and adult relationships. One student neighbor says: “You know, we’re still young, and we sometimes need help.”
Undergraduates have no personal relationships with professors, little with their non-faculty advisors, and few close friendships. Most experience anxiety, insecurity, and sometimes depression. They talk about “burnout” at 21-22.
With general education narrowed to reflect competing disciplinary clusters rather than broader needs of undergraduates, and departments competing for budget-accruing credit hours, teaching, learning, and the “college experience” are shadows of their former selves.
--Harvey J. Graff
Professor Emeritus of English and History
and Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies
Ohio State University