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Lazy American Students: After the Deluge

Posted by Your Town  December 23, 2009 05:00 PM

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On Monday, The Boston Globe ran an opinion piece entitled “My Lazy American Students.”

In it, I wrote about how teaching in college has shown me that international students often work harder than their American counterparts. Though this is emphatically not true across the board, the work ethic and success of Asian, European, and South American students – who have to compete with a classroom of native English speakers – can be astounding.

I also noted in the column that there’s too much texting in class, too much dozing off, too much e-mail-checking, too much flirting (I didn’t mention flirting in the first piece, but I’ll mention it here). Obviously, international students do all these things, but I have noticed them more amongst American students.

I worked hard on the column and lay in bed Sunday night hoping that – amidst the flurry of Christmas shopping – someone would read it.

And that's when the avalanche started.

By Monday morning, “My Lazy American Students” was the most e-mailed article on the Globe’s website. By late Monday, it was the most e-mailed article in the last 30 days, even though it had been online for less that 48 hours. Hundreds of comments piled up on Boston.com; on Wednesday, there were nearly 500.

Meanwhile, my personal inbox and school account were deluged with e-mail from people across the country. Some thought I was brilliant; some thought I was horrible (and that’s putting it mildly).

One professor from Bridgewater State complimented me as “particularly incisive” and said, “Your op-ed piece will be photo-copied and attached to each course syllabus that I hand out at the beginning of each semester. And I will have them read it right there and then.”

A student, meanwhile, noted that “it pains me to see your article ‘My lazy American students’ as the most e-mailed article of the day on boston.com. I think it is both prejudice[d] and full of stereotypes.”

At Babson, some professors wrote to say that they completely agreed with me. Others said they had no idea what I was talking about and that I had disgraced the school.

One Babson freshman said he really liked the piece, and it will motivate him to work harder next semester. An alum, however, was shocked at the characterization of Babson students as “lazy.”

In fact, I never used the word “lazy” in my submission to the Globe; the original title was “America’s Work Deficit,” which reflected my intention to comment on our entire educational system. But authors do not write headlines, so that decision was out of my hands.

It’s important, though, to say that the experiences which informed my column go well beyond Babson – a school where I have loved working. I have also taught at Tufts and served as an application-reader for Yale’s admissions office.

And I have found that international students often possess a work ethic that Americans do not. If an essay needs to be proofread four times, they do it, even if they are bored to tears. If a class needs their full attention, they give it, even though they really want to know whether their friend texted them back.

Americans are less predictable. Some are fully engaged and always well prepared. Others – and I offer a real-life anecdote here – sit in the back and do what they consider under-the-radar flirting.

I’m 31, I know what flirting is, and I pick it up in a second. Upon detection, I make it my mission to create a lecture so exciting that the students in the back momentarily forget how attractive they are to each other. At night, I spend hours trying to develop classes compelling enough that texting, flirting, and note-writing disappear.

Of course, it may be, as many have said on the Globe’s website, that international students who come here represent their country’s best and brightest – and that comparing them to American students is comparing apples to oranges.

There are, though, the facts. Studies show that American students know less about math, science, and geography than peers in many other industrialized countries.

By rejecting criticism, we are doing a disservice to our students. It is not anti-American to point out flaws in our educational system; it is both patriotic and necessary.

Kara Miller teaches rhetoric and history at Babson College.

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