Layoffs all over the place. Wads of unemployment. Dwindling job propects. But at least the kids aren’t as awful as they used to be.
For weeks I have been hearing professors exclaiming with delight about this year’s batch of students. They’re bright, they’re polite, they’re hard-working. They read a lot and discuss intelligently. University bookstores, used to sending back unsold surpluses to publishers every year, are now re-ordereing frantically to keep up with student demand for supplementary texts. Librarians, who lamented for years that professors made them buy books students never consulted, now face complaints from students who can’t find enough books on the shelves.
And the kids are nice\ Their forerunners in the late 1960s tended to interrupt lectures (even mine) with a loud, “That’s a load of crap.” With today’s kids it’s always “Excuse me, sir,” and “Good morning, Professor,” and polite questions about what they’re studying.
So why are students working so much harder, sounding so much more serious, and acting so much more respectfully than their hippie-freak predecessars? Why, it’s the haunting prospect of unemployment, of course, the fear of that fruitless search for a job with a BA that was okay but not okay enough. One way to avoid that problem, at least for a time, is to study hard, get good marks and go on to professional or graduate training. “We want to stay around here as long as we can,” said one of my bright young chaps the other day. Better to do a law degree or even a PhD than face the horrid job market now. So, even though the 1980s have seen the nearcomplete disappearance of academic job openings, graduate enrollments in my department are 28 per cent higher this year than in 1978-1979.
Indeed, at any level, students may be starting to find that studying is kind of fun compared to what they’ll have to do when the studies are over. “How can you be so cheerful,” I asked a class last year, “when there’s nothing but unemployment waiting for you after your graduation?”
“We’ll worry about that when we face it,” one of them answered. “Meanwhile, we just want to enjoy university.”
But the evil day must come at last, and when it does, most students want to be as well prepared as they can. They know by now that an ordinary BA is no
sure ticket to a job; they have learned the lesson that good enough is not good enough, and nothing could have driven it home better than the plight of those thousands of Ontario high-school graduates refused admission to university this year because while they passed Grade 13, they hadn’t passed with high enough marks.
Little wonder that students are concerned about marks. And little wonder that they’re studying hard to get them. Economic depression has turned them to serious plugging. Since the abolition of the strap, there has been nothing like the prospect of unemployment to keep kids in order. In Quebec, separatism has suffered a terrible blow, as young people have exchanged their PQ buttons for library cards and abandoned the future of la nation québécoise to work for their own future careers. Across the country the craze for sit-ins and demonstrations, office wreckings and confronta-
Herpes has frightened university students out of the sack and into the stacks—a great boon to scholarly endeavor
tions has quite faded away, while library lights burn late.
We have come a long way since the days of the hippies, the yippies and the Cultural Revolution. Back then, when prosperity looked as if it would last forever and nobody doubted he would get the job of his dreams—or live without working if he wanted to—it didn’t seem to matter whether anybody learned anything. “You can be assured,” a primary school principal boasted to me in 1970, “that we don’t teach grammar or spelling here.” And my boss informed me that a teacher was not supposed to teach, but just sit around the table and rap with the students. The important thing was how you related to them. Nowadays students want to be taught. They have even cut their hair short so they can hear the lectures better. It’s good preparation for job interviews.
Back in the 1960s, when ministries of education were busy tearing down classroom walls and curriculum structures, the students’ council at the University of Montreal used to read quotations from Chairman Mao over the loudspeakers in the cafeteria every day
at lunchtime, and the student newspaper in the faculty of business administration published features on how to build the golden socialist future. Now students’ councils help organize “Career Days” in the universities, and the University of Toronto Varsity published a whole supplement of advice last month on how to prepare for the job hunt.
Sure, you can find the odd middleaged professor who yearns for the 1960s, whose hair is still too long and whose beard is still too straggly, who claims that students are not as interesting as they used to be. He’ll tell you that they are only dull plodders, so busy cramming that they have no time to think or question anything. But never believe it. The questions they ask at this point are as clever as ever—and much more to the point. The complaining professor is only a whining malcontent, a former hippie himself who can’t accept the fact that the days of his youth are over.
Those wild and revolutionary days of the 1960s have become only a subject of curiosity for today’s students. “What was it like,” they ask, “to live in the Sixties?” And some, with just the slightest hint of longing: “Those must have been exciting times.”
Yeah, dig it, man! Really exciting. Thank God they’re over. I remember those days—the classes interrupted by political demonstrations, the dreary attempts to get students to discuss books they hadn’t read because they had been too busy revolutionizing society, popping dope or doing their own thing. I remember the fellow who came to thank me for a great first year at university— not because of what he had learned in my class but because he had, as he put it, “lost his virginity” with a girl he had met there.
“It must have been great to be around in the Sixties,” a bright-eyed young man said to me recently. “All that excitement, that sense of change, and all that free sex. Nowadays everybody’s so scared of herpes, there’s no action at all.”
Maybe that’s why they’re all so busy studying. Herpes has frightened them out of the sack and into the stacks.
Well, there you have it: unemployment and herpes, the two great boons to scholarly endeavor in our time. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Arthur Silver is an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto.
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