THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Kara Miller

My lazy American students

By Kara Miller
December 21, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

IT WAS the kind of student conference I hate.

“I’ll do better,’’ my student told me, leaning forward in his chair. “I know I’ve gotten behind this semester, but I’m going to turn things around. Would it be OK if I finished all my uncompleted work by Monday?’’

I sat silent for a moment. “Yes. But it’s important that you catch up completely this weekend, so that you’re not just perpetually behind.’’

A few weeks later, I would conduct a nearly identical conversation with two other students. And, again, there would be no tangible result: No make-up papers. No change in effort. No improvement in time management.

By the time students are in college, habits can be tough to change. If you’re used to playing video games like “Modern Warfare’’ or “Halo’’ all night, how do you fit in four hours of homework? Or rest up for class?

Teaching in college, especially one with a large international student population, has given me a stark - and unwelcome - illustration of how Americans’ work ethic often pales in comparison with their peers from overseas.

My “C,’’ “D,’’ and “F’’ students this semester are almost exclusively American, while my students from India, China, and Latin America have - despite language barriers - generally written solid papers, excelled on exams, and become valuable class participants.

One girl from Shanghai became a fixture at office hours, embraced our college writing center, and incessantly e-mailed me questions about her evolving papers. Her English is still mediocre: she frequently puts “the’’ everywhere (as in “the leader supported the feminism and the environmentalism’’) and confuses “his’’ and “her.’’ But that didn’t stop her from doing rewrite after rewrite, tirelessly trying to improve both structure and grammar.

Chinese undergraduates have consistently impressed me with their work ethic, though I have seen similar habits in students from India, Thailand, Brazil, and Venezuela. Often, they’ve done little English-language writing in their home countries, and they frequently struggle to understand my lectures. But their respect for professors - and for knowledge itself - is palpable. The students listen intently to everything I say, whether in class or during office hours, and try to engage in the conversation.

Too many 18-year-old Americans, meanwhile, text one another under their desks (certain they are sly enough to go unnoticed), check e-mail, decline to take notes, and appear tired and disengaged.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that all American students are the same. I’ve taught many who were hardworking, talented, and deeply impressive. They listened intently, enriched class discussions, and never shied away from rewrites. At their best, American students marry knowledge and innovation, resulting in some astoundingly creative work.

But creativity without knowledge - a common phenomenon - is just not enough.

Too many American students simply lack the basics. In 2002, a National Geographic-Roper survey found that most 18- to 24-year-olds could not find Afghanistan, Iraq, or Japan on a map, ranking them behind counterparts in Sweden, Great Britain, Canada, Italy, Japan, France, and Germany. And in 2007 the American Institutes for Research reported that eighth graders in even our best-performing states - like Massachusetts - scored below peers in Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, while students in our worst-performing states - like Mississippi - were on par with eighth graders in Slovakia, Romania, and Russia.

We’ve got a knowledge gap, spurred by a work-ethic gap.

Which brings me to another grade-challenged student, who once sprinted across campus to talk to me.

“I’m really sorry I missed office hours,’’ he said. “Do you have time to talk?’’

“I have a meeting in a couple of minutes,’’ I said. “But you can walk with me.’’

“OK,’’ he said. “I really enjoy your class, and I think I can do better. How can I improve my grade?’’

I looked at him sideways. “Well, you might start with staying awake.’’

“Yeah,’’ he grinned, looking at his shoes. “Sorry about that. There’s always stuff going on in my dorm late at night. I have to learn to be better about time management.’’

Of course, he had it exactly right. Success is all about time management, and in a globalizing economy, Americans’ inability to stay focused and work hard could prove to be a serious problem.

Nowhere, sadly, is this clearer than in the classroom.

Kara Miller teaches rhetoric and history at Babson College. She wrote a follow-up to this column in response to the many comments received.