Irish students: the eternal adolescents

It’s not just about missing lectures – Conor Dempsey on how our lazy generation are putting our futures in danger.

While searching for exam clues on the feedback thread for one of my maths courses I came across a bleak example to substantiate my feeling that there is something amiss with at least a certain sub-section of students in this college. This was the revealing comment: “I thought you might like to know that sometimes when you ask questions in class, and no one answers, it’s not that no one knows the answer, it’s just that people are too embarrassed to speak up. They’re worried they might not be completely right, or they don’t want to show off.” Of course, whoever wrote this is absolutely right. The pathetic fact of the matter is that we are so caught up in what others think of us that we will literally sit through lectures and say not a word, regardless of our understanding of the material. We all know this phenomenon; it is mentioned with laughter, as we all chuckle about the lecturer asking for questions only to be met with blank stares and absolute silence.
This is not what university ought to be like; we are missing out on the chance to interact directly with those who know the answers to whatever questions we may have. Nobody will think you are stupid – most of the time when somebody asks a question I am delighted because it just clears up something I was wondering anyway. American students here find this amazing. A classmate from the US recently told me that he assumed he was missing the point of one of our courses; nobody asked questions and he assumed this was because we all got it and he did not. No, I assured him, it’s just that there is something wrong with students here; we don’t value our education enough to bother participating.
In the US they pay for what they get and they want to get as much as they can for their money. At the end of the day finances trump embarrassment. The lethargy and apathy with which we approach our education is not just a foible, a cute reminder of the carefree Irish. Certainly the over-zealous super-achiever culture of the American academic elite is not healthy, and thankfully it has not reached these shores just yet. On the other hand, it is equally destructive to reside at the other end of the spectrum, and I fear many of us do. Invert the stereotype of the industrious go-getter at Harvard and you have the stereotype of the passive Irish student, so indulged that he need not bother becoming an adult at least until after graduation. That is what has happened; this generation has not grown up on time, we are the eternal adolescents. A reintroduction of fees may be just what we need. A fair system where fees are regulated and kept reasonable combined with a sensible student loan scheme would help to raise the value of education. The USI seemed to be in paroxysms of horror at the mention of reintroducing fees. The reaction of student unions to the idea was embarrassing. Fees introduced in a fair manner would raise the value of education and also address the underfunding faced by Irish universities. This would help our universities to perform better on the international stage, and that would be of direct benefit to the students passing through. Fees need not make college any more exclusive than it already is; a system where everybody must get a loan, and admission is still solely results-based, can ensure that students from less advantaged backgrounds maintain at least their current chances of reaching university. The recalcitrance with which student unions treated the issue was a clear indication of how cosseted we have become; apparently the idea that we would have to actually pay for our tuition is preposterous.
The fact is that in the current generation the average student has never experienced financial strain. Most of us have been completely comfortable since birth. I am not talking about luxury here either; I simply mean that we have all had enough food on the table, a warm home, decent clothes etc. I do not come from a wealthy background and I am aware of the struggle many people would face in paying registration fees for example. I am not arguing about the fairness of our society’s way of deciding who gets to university, but rather about the attitude of typical students, especially in Trinity. One of the less desirable effects of this comfort is that we have no sense of urgency in becoming financially independent. There are, of course, advantages to this; without pressure to promptly achieve financial independence we have much greater freedom to explore different career paths and to find the sort of job we really want. More weighty however are the disadvantages; many of us do not feel we are working toward any career and this often manifests itself in disengagement and apathy. On the other hand many of those who are taking advantage of their opportunities to get the jobs they really want are too driven by the ideal end-result. The more organic hit-and-miss development people used to go through has been given up for a focused, straight-line careerism that creates individuals with a limited and standardised range of experiences. This stems directly from our cushioned upbringing; we are excessively idealistic and can afford to be. Such idealism is just wastefulness in another guise.
There have been myriad improvements in this country over the past 30 years, and we are lucky to have reaped the benefits. On the other hand, as we hear all the time, from some of our most lucid commentators, from our parents and grandparents: the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. Along with material hardship we have discarded solid values like respect for your elders, humility, work ethic, and appreciation of opportunity. Generations who still had these values instilled show none of the self-importance and arrogant laziness of the current generation of university goers. Nor do they show the self-indulgent idealism that allows students to ponder their perfect path indefinitely, all the while resting on the backs of others. It seems to me that adolescence has literally stretched into the early twenties, an effect of the indulgence generated by the Celtic Tiger.
Many students need to make the basic realisations that ought to occur during adolescence: we are not owed anything, indeed we have been given everything, and that brings a responsibility to do something with our opportunities. It is a sorry state of affairs if our natural response to our manifold opportunities is to embrace an inflated sense of due and forget to grow up.