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American students' minds: closing in on grades, jobs

AMERICANS have always felt a professed and even anxious concern over the souls of the rising generation. Of the trials faced by the first English Puritans in New England - arctic winters, shipwrecks, Indian wars, crop failures - none were more grievous than ``unsatisfactory children,'' wrote the late Perry Miller of Harvard. That is, children who failed to see or measure up to the extraordinary enterprise their parents undertook.

Now comes Allan Bloom with his best seller, ``The Closing of the American Mind,'' saying that students in the 1980s lack the passion and intellectual fiber of previous generations. Students reflect the mushy values of popular culture, he says; they don't take ideas and issues seriously and don't make important critical distinctions.

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Bloom's thesis adds to an already rising tide of ``student bashing'' among writers and columnists.

Defenders have been quick on the uptake. ``I think the generation born in the late 1960s may be the most creative ever,'' said Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, in upstate New York. ``They have a sophistication that sees through the slogans. They don't carry the baggage of 20th-century modernism.''

``If students were like Allan Bloom wanted them to be, they'd be very boring,'' said Matthew Denn, student body president at the University of California, Berkeley. ``We can't spend every waking hour reading the Great Books.''

Mr. Denn agrees, however, that students have moved away from thinking about such ideas as ``the natural rights of human beings. I'm tired of hearing students say you can never judge another culture.''

Student-bashers don't take into account the complex set of influences students face today, educators say: the anarchy of peer culture, a corrosive atmosphere of skepticism on campus, high tuition, low job prospects, a lack of stirring issues.

Contrary to popular opinion, there are still a lot of midnight discussions - about God, music, politics, and sex. ``You just have to know where to find them,'' a recent graduate said.

Yet in visits to eight major universities on the East and West Coasts, this writer found few students who said they felt viscerally engaged with ideas, or the interior of debates. Though bright and curious, few undergrads questioned their education. At many colleges, those most intellectually engaged were studying minority issues - race, class, gender.

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Marc Fisher, a New Yorker who is a medical student at Duke University, spoke for many of those interviewed when he commented during a rainy football game at Duke last fall that undergraduates today are ``extremely intelligent, but they lack a moral depth to draw from. They don't lack factual knowledge, and they've learned to give slick, easy answers. They think it's all in the presentation. They want to work hard, party hard - just like the Michelob commercials. But I think they lack a basis for decisionmaking, when things cease to be black and white. Like, what would they do if their structures suddenly went off track, fell apart? What do they fall back on?''

One surprise is a lack of ``emblematic'' books or ideas on campus today. In the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, undergraduates identified with, adopted, or wrestled with a whole range of thinkers - from Thoreau to Kierkegaard to Mao, Freud, Gandhi, or even to the rain-patter-soft-religion of books like ``Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.''

Yet in informal talks with more than 50 undergrads in fraternities, dormitories, and libraries, only three said that any books or authors had made a significant impact on them, or caused them to reorient their thinking.

A senior psychology major at a well-known Eastern university couldn't name a single thinker in his field who had influenced him significantly.

``I had one professor who told us, `Don't just live in the world, inherit it,''' said Scott McCallan, a junior political science major at Berkeley. ``He wanted us to latch onto a certain key figure in history and study him or her. I just haven't really gotten into one yet.''

``I don't think we're as self-defined as students in other periods,'' said a recent Amherst College grad.

A young man reading Hedrick Smith's ``The Russians'' outside the student union at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, commented: ``In the '60s, students seemed to have a niche. There were parties where someone sang, someone else brought poetry, someone read a paper on ecology. We don't do that now. I'm surprised, because I'm in agreement with the professors who say the kids aren't learning.

``The people I live with don't read. I'll be sitting on the couch with a novel, and one of them will say, `What class is that for?' Like, if you aren't reading a textbook - why are you reading?''

Talk in the coffeehouses of Berkeley was about girlfriends, boyfriends, and professors, says Steve, a PhD with long hair and a Tolstoy beard who serves espresso in the evenings. ``In two months I've only heard one discussion of ideas. I was real surprised. I told the kids, `Hey, that's great!'''

``Students don't want to stick their necks out,'' said Jeff Seinfeld at Stanford University in California. There's peer pressure not to have convictions.

``People here say things they think are politically correct - but they'd rather not say anything,'' said Mr. Seinfeld's classmate John Shields. ``It's not disinterest - it's a social sanction.''

John Felkner, a 1987 Williams grad, said it's not student apathy, but an uncertain, skeptical tone on campus, set by professors, that stifles intellectual inquiry. ``The academic style is to attack, to deconstruct and dismiss,'' he said. ``To be exploratory or speak out in class might not always be rewarded.''

Neither do student-bashers take account of the economic vise that undergrads feel themselves in. If students were careerist by choice in the late '70s, they have become so by necessity in the late '80s. Many graduates leave college with debts of between $15,000 and $40,000 and enter jobs paying $15,000 to $25,000 a year. Rents are high; a $20,000 down payment for a house seems to many out of the question. The saying goes: Get grades, get a diploma, get out.

A Berkeley junior sighed: ``I almost have to go into business to make it.''

``Business is the most popular major,'' said Val Dennison, a graduate assistant in French at Chapel Hill. ``I go down the aisles each semester and ask students to declare their intentions. It's mainly cash-payoff majors.''

A thirst for ``some kind of truth'' motivates Ms. Dennison's study: ``I don't see how other people can do without that - but they do,'' she said. ``The sad fact is, it doesn't pay to be an academic. You tell people you are going into French literature, and they laugh.''

The pressure for grades and the cost of school scare students away from abstract thinking, said a University of Maryland sophomore, Julie Kuchich: ``We're more comfortable with answers straight out of the book. My professor is really into understanding theories, like `Can societies choose their own characteristics?' But my classmates say, `Hey, you can't get an ``A'' writing about that.'''

Twenty minutes later, in front of the school library, one of Ms. Kuchich's fellow students commented, ``If there's no right or wrong answer ... you have to think too much. If it's the Bill of Rights - that I can memorize; but I don't want interpretive stuff. I've got my biology degree to think about.''

Raging competition also drives contemplative thinking underground. Said a George Washington University senior: ``School is competitive; it's exhausting. People don't want to get into anything heavy at the end of the day.''

Still, students do. Mark Rowely, an engineering major at Duke, gets into long rap sessions at his dorm. ``The other night we started talking about TV at 8:30 and ended with the space program at 1 a.m. There was a shouting match about God - does He exist or influence events? Some people thought He was totally neutral. One guy thought He works through the peace movement, and gives things a little push.

``But I can't talk like that every night.''

Why not?

``Why? 'Cause I've got class in the morning!''

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