Dear students, why are you so boring?

A letter from a lecturer

28th December 2017

I went to a friend’s birthday party in hipster Hoxton recently. “I hope I don’t bump into any of my students,” I said to my husband en route. That’s something us lecturers really don’t want to do on a night out – you might ask us about your essay, or realise that our evening wardrobe is exactly the same as our daytime one, or worse, video us dancing to send as a link to Rate My Professor.

I needn’t have worried. I asked my students on Monday morning what they had been up to that weekend. Not a single one had gone out. Many were working – often their part-time jobs take up many hours – but lots had just stayed home for the entire weekend. “On Friday and Saturday, day and night?” I queried. And indeed, that was what they had meant. Some had popped to the supermarket, many had gone to the gym. One had been to a friend’s house for dinner. But no one seemed to have done anything out of the ordinary. I have been teaching undergraduates for over a decade now and I would suggest that during this time they have got more and more boring. Not less clever, and not less friendly, but definitely more boring.

We drank more, took more drugs and slept with more people

How can I tell? Well more often than not, I start my classes by asking students to tell me something interesting they have done or found out since I saw them last. And more often than not I am met with silence. I prompt – has anyone been away? Anyone been to the theatre? Anyone seen a new band? Anyone been to the cinema? Anyone read something interesting? Anyone been to an art gallery? I go through my list of things…. Anyone tried a new food? Anyone been to a new area of town? Anyone have a wild fling? Anyone watched something interesting on TV? We get there eventually – someone will have heard an interesting stat on the radio, someone else might have binge-watched a new series no one else has heard of, someone might have tried a new vegetable they bought from a stall on the market, but it can take a while to get there.

It is common throughout history for each generation to think the next is wilder than they were, less responsible than they were, having more fun than they were. But I think we have gone entirely the other way. Twenty years ago I was a student and several times a week I tried something new. Sometimes that was an exhibition, sometimes it was a new cocktail. Sometimes it meant taking a train to a new place or getting a new hair colour. We drank more, took more drugs and slept with more people. We learnt who we were, and who we weren’t.

Working hard alone will not spark the ideas that will lead to moments of genius that create new ideas or art forms and scientific discoveries

While it is true that those who work hard tend to be the luckiest – that is, good luck is actually what happens when you work hard and nothing to do with mystical fortune at all, though various privileges of race and gender and class and finances do of course come into it – working hard alone will not spark the ideas that will lead to amazing insights, great turns of phrase, and moments of genius that create new ideas or art forms and scientific discoveries. These happen when your brain is fizzing from other experiences; when you’ve let a new genre of music awaken unused synapses, or walked along a new beach and heard inspiration on the wind. They occur when you’re dancing so intently you forget who else is around you, when you go out looking like someone you’ve never met before and when you snog someone you’ve never met before. The studying and the part-time jobs – that’s what you should be cramming in between those things.

If millennial students aren’t doing interesting things when they do have all the time in the world to loaf around, what hope is there for the future when they have to cram their cultural life into the few hours between work, sleep and other commitments? As a lecturer, it is my job to help my students learn how to think, analyse and be creative. Hopefully, these skills will help them do something exciting with their lives to benefit us all. But my main advice to current students is what students in the past would have said to their parents, not the other way round – lighten up. This is your prime opportunity to do new and exciting things, to make mistakes and, well, to be interesting. Don’t waste it on too many nights in.

The author is a lecturer at a leading British university who, for obvious reasons, prefers to remain anonymous.

Now read a student’s response: Today’s students can’t do anything right

28th December 2017