Disrespecting Authority: An Issue of Character & Basic Self-Control


There for a reason

There for a reason

I’ve been reflecting on the tragic death of a soccer referee in Utah, he who was killed recently by an enraged teenager who’d punched him in the head; I’ve read, too, that such animosity, rage, and even physical assault from player, parent, or coach are not uncommon. How, I wonder, could such behavior occur?  Aren’t youth sports, after all, supposed to build character?

Of course, it’s tough to argue that a young person assaulting a referee in a temper tantrum is anything but barbaric, whether killing was the intention or not; this act is sickening and deeply disturbing. Also deeply disturbing, though, is that the act of lashing out in anger toward such an authority figure would be even remotely culturally acceptable behavior. While of course critical thinking, civil debate, and questioning authority can be healthy, assaulting whomever doesn’t “give us our own way” certainly is not.

Sadly, I’ve noticed this “how dare you give me a penalty” attitude is not such a foreign concept in higher education, either. It’s lamentable and it’s wrong, and it’s getting in the way of learning.

I’ve taught community-college English for over 10 years, and while I (thank goodness) never was physically assaulted by a student, I have on many occasions noticed an undercurrent of disrespect and entitlement among some undergraduates; and I hear similar tales from colleagues again and again. When some “adult” students realize college is in fact hard work and they must earn their grades, the reactions of some – certainly not all, but more than a small minority – are best characterized as childish. They seem to expect high grades for minimal effort, and resent professors’ efforts to encourage them to meet higher standards. While most students don’t have violent tempers, some lash out in angry emails or simply bring their defiance to class and “act up” in ways one might expect in ill-behaved elementary-school children. Disrespect for professors and classmates alike is evident in their actions and language. Worst of all (in my view), some students caught in the act of plagiarizing show a total lack of humility or shame, either denying their wrongdoing or (incredibly) justifying it somehow. In all these cases, the students involved seem averse to accepting personal responsibility for their own performance and behavior, and rather eager to blame the authority figure: “how dare you fail my assignment,” “how dare you ask me to quit texting in class,” and so on.

Certainly, I’m not equating physical assault and tragic loss of life with the more commonplace bad attitudes and verbal hissy fits we see as professors; but on the other hand, whatever the level of offending action, we need to expect better behavior of young athletes and students. Truly, those on the playing field and in the classroom enjoy a privilege they should cherish, and at the very least they ought to carry themselves with maturity and self-control. To allow abuse of those who must enforce standards and rules, whether that abuse be outrageous or more subtle, is to invite more of it; as we do, we contribute to a real societal poison.

Image via mrg.bz / Karpati Gabor

Students Themselves Own their Destiny



Strength of self

A New York Times blog editorial this year reported on the relatively low number of college students who end up graduating; the article asserts “the United States is doing a terrible job of helping enrolled college students complete their educations.” (1)

Well, I’m not sure exactly who “the United States” refers to and what is meant by “helping,” but when it comes to increasing student success, graduation rates, and most importantly, learning, I rather agree with another recent editorial from Community College Week (2): “Time to Hold Students Accountable For Their Own Success.”

Hank Dunn, president of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in Asheville, North Carolina, tells the tale of his campus’s “best practices” undertaken “to help ensure student success and completion.” His article lists an impressive array of student outreach and support efforts: a clear demonstration opposing the notion of a “terrible job of helping students” (and I might add these types of efforts have been repeated in community colleges all over the country).

Or, at least, these efforts reflect a valiant goal to help students as much as is possible.  Here’s the kicker, and perhaps a dirty little secret for those who don’t work with students every day: students have to do their part. To succeed, students must be responsible, own their decisions, and choose to come to class and study. No amount of money invested in higher ed or complaining about higher ed will change this basic fact.

So I was pleased to read President Dunn’s campus has embraced, on a broad level, the excellent self-help book for students titled On Course: Strategies for Creating Success in College and in Life by Skip Downing. The book explains that one must approach life from a creator and not a victim mentality; and Dunn claims it’s working for them:

“We now move very quickly to a student’s personal responsibility for their actions and find that as we do this as an entire campus (from security guards to advisors to instructors to general staff) that students’ behaviors are changing. They are accepting more responsibility and they are now more quickly looking for ways to intrinsically accomplish their educational goals.”

Wonderful news!

Those headed to college would do well to understand that their behavior, indeed, will make the difference (and that attitude flows from beliefs and mindset). The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has established that American students, for surely a multitude of reasons, aren’t performing well in school and don’t know what they should know coming out of high school. That deficient knowledge base (in many cases) certainly includes study skills and general life attitudes conducive to success.

So of course, we have students coming to college utterly unprepared, and some folks wring their hands about how these students don’t graduate from those colleges. How can “the United States” increase student success?  By encouraging students to empower themselves and thereby, as much as is possible, own their own destiny.

Articles discussed above:

(1) “Only Half of First-time College Students Graduate in 6 Years,” NYTimes.com, Economix blog, 2/26/13, Catherine Rampell.
(2) “Time to Hold Students Accountable For Their Own Success,” Community College Week Point of View, 3/18/13, Hank Dunn.

Image via mrg.bz / jeltovski                                      

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