As one ages, one must be increasingly vigilant against falling into the foibles of the elderly: saying to your children those things your parents said to you which you swore you would never say yourself; losing your hair and trying to pretend you have not; thinking your minor bodily ailments are actually interesting to others; or, worst of all, romanticizing the past.
Fear of committing that last error has kept me silent on this subject for some time. But, as my observations have been confirmed by one fellow faculty member after another from various institutions—some of whom cannot, like myself, be accused of having glutted the history of the world with a superfluous number of birthdays—I have concluded that there has in fact been a drastic shift in our culture which bodes ill for the future. Sometime just after the turn of the millennium, manners disappeared from the earth.
Manners in general have been under siege for some time. If a gentleman holds a door for a lady or offers her his seat, he now does not know whether he can expect to be appreciated, ignored, or decapitated as a Chauvinist. So a certain amount of confusion and loss of confidence at this point is understandable, if not excusable. But there is another whole area of polite behavior that had not been subject to these baleful influences and in which, on the campus where I teach, at least, civilization had been preserved largely intact–until recently. I am referring to classroom etiquette.
Have the primary and secondary schools in this country suddenly just thrown up their hands and stopped giving any instruction or having any expectations at all in discipline and decorum? Let me share with you a list of behaviors that fifteen, even ten years ago were almost unheard of in a college classroom, but which have mushroomed into an epidemic in just the last five years.
- Students who are habitually late to class—by five, ten, even fifteen minutes or more. (When the bell rings, you are responsible to be already in your seat with your pen out, ready to take notes—not just then running up the stairs to begin a five-minute ritual of getting your stuff organized.)
- Students who wander in and out of class at random. (Can they not hold their bladders for 50 minutes?)
- Students who continue their own conversations after the professor has arisen to begin his lecture. (In the past, an expectant pause of just a few seconds would have caused such students to realize it was time to shut up. Now, it can take minutes, and the professor may still actually have to request silence so he can begin. And some of these folks never stop talking.)
- Students who come to class unprepared. (I do not refer here just to whether they have read the assignment, but also to the fact that they do not have the textbook with them, much less a notebook or a pen for taking notes.)
- Students who tenaciously argue over every point deducted from their work. (The assumption used to be that students started with a zero, and the burden of proof was on them as to why they should be awarded any points, with good work and correct answers being the only acceptable justifications that could be offered. Today’s students seem to believe that they start with an inalienable right to one hundred points, and the burden of proof is on the professor as to why any points should be deducted.)
- Students who ask stupid questions. (Do not misunderstand me. No honest question about the material is stupid. I am talking about questions which prove that the student has not bothered to read the syllabus or even listen to what has just been said, or questions which have already been answered in the same way 72 times.)
At the risk of stating the obvious (but is anything obvious to people this clueless?), let me point out that each of these lapses in correct classroom deportment betrays a profound lack of respect for the professor and a profound lack of Christian charity for one’s fellow students.
I cannot believe that even today’s eighteen-year olds are hearing these things for the first time. If they are, if this generation of freshmen is really as uninstructed in basic decency as many of them act, their former teachers and administrators should all be fired for dereliction of duty. Oh well, since they stopped teaching grammar and spelling two decades ago, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that basic manners should follow the Three R’s into educational oblivion. Even so, simple common sense ought to have rendered this column unnecessary. But since it apparently is necessary, well, wake up now, and smell the pigsty.
Hello, people. Middle School is over. Grow up—or ship out!
Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College. His most recent books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), and three from Lantern Hollow Press: Stars through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams, Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy. To order, go to http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.