Students Aren’t What They Used to Be

Jun 30, 2022 4:15:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President for Strategic Engagement Dr. Michael Woolf. This month, he parses through generational cohorts and shares his observations from over the decades. Dr. Woolf also covers fallacies about students from different generations and their traits.

This is the kind of thing you inevitably hear in every faculty meeting everywhere: the plaintive chant of those who compare their rich past with an impoverished present. It involves three assumptions.

The first I call the Eden Syndrome. It is built around the conviction that then (whenever that was) was better than now (whenever that is). The notion of a golden age, the glorious garden from which we are forever separated, is embedded in Judeo-Christian tradition. Educators tend to believe that their generation were paragons, living a quasi-Edenic ideal in which academic integrity and something called standards were of unsurpassed excellence. This is informed by nostalgia and bad memory.

The second I call the generation game: the belief that collective common characteristics are based upon age and background. The Pew Research Center tell us that: “Generations provide the opportunity to look at Americans both by their place in the life cycle—whether a young adult, a middle-aged parent, or a retiree—and by their membership in a cohort of individuals who were born at a similar time.”

Elsewhere, and in “The Challenge of Teaching Generation Z” essay, we are told that: 

"Five general trends can be identified, broadly referring to: (1) The traditionalists, born between 1928 and 1944, who values authority and a top-down management approach; (2) The baby boomer generation, born between 1945 and 1965 who tend to be workaholics; (3) Generation X, born between 1965 and 1979, a generation who is comfortable with authority and view the work-life balance as important, (4) Generation Y, born between 1980 and 1995 and who generally grew up in prosperity and have technology savvy and (5) Generation Z, born after 1995, who...tend to be digital natives, fast decision makers, and highly connected" (Cilliers, 2017).

This is probably the only place in which it is still permissible to define and then stereotype a group based upon assumed characteristics. Replacing generation X, Y, Z, or whatever with, for example, “women,” “Jews,” “African Americans,” etc. demonstrates that, in any other context, such a process of characterization would be viewed, at least by progressives, as entirely unacceptable.

The least heinous of these assumptions, temporal conditioning, is based on the idea that groups are influenced by their circumstances of birth and place. There is a certain credibility in this until it becomes a means of characterizing and distinguishing groups. That takes us back to the fallacy of generational identity, which, if melded with the Eden syndrome, becomes the belief that “students aren’t what they used to be,” a seductive narrative of decline. 

What is the Eden Syndrome?

It is not only teachers who propagate the Eden syndrome, of course. Such perspectives are found more broadly in the way in which curmudgeonly elders perceive the young: unruly, undisciplined, disrespectful, disruptors of the natural order of things. Each generation propagates a myth of decline to feel better about themselves. This view of the young is typical:

"They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. They no longer rise when elders enter the room, they contradict their parents and tyrannize their teachers. Children are now tyrants."

Thus said the teacher Socrates of students some 400 years before the birth of Christ.

Looking gloomy

Caption: Looking gloomy.

I was an undergraduate student at Lancaster University from 1965 to 1968. I have also spent a good deal of my life teaching and, I confess, that at times the Eden syndrome has been a temptation as it offers a comfortingly smug sense of superiority. I remember how hard I studied, how focused I was on the pursuit of knowledge, my dedication to scholarship, how diligently I immersed myself in the life of the mind.

All that is nonsense—delusion, false memory, lies I told my children in the vain hope that they would not follow my example. If I honestly recall those times, sometimes hard to do for several reasons—not just because it was so long ago—I missed most lectures, attended seminars spasmodically, even if there in person. I used the library primarily to catch up on sleep. On one occasion when I was awake in the library, I looked at the bus stop opposite. A regular service took students from the campus to the city of Lancaster and onward to the fleshpots of Morecambe, a faded seaside resort that had seen better days. At around 11am I saw a friend, someone I shall call Maynard because that was his name, waiting for a bus. After a satisfying nap I noted that Maynard was still waiting for the bus, of which about 15 had passed. I went to investigate to find Maynard crying. “What’s happening? Where are you going?” I asked. “I don’t know,” was his tortured response.

The worrying thing about this event was that it was far from uncommon. Perhaps it was the 1960s, perhaps it was the company I kept, but I recall very few fellow students who demonstrated a sense of purpose, a commitment to productivity or the pursuit of wisdom.


Caption: A selection of fellow scholars, Lancaster, circa, 1968. I am not featured as I didn’t turn up in time. Neither did Maynard.

From this perspective, I can assert confidently that students aren’t what they used to be. For the most part, education abroad students at CAPA, and elsewhere in my experience, are curious, motivated, and engaged in ways of which we never dreamed. They do productive things such as internships. This involves getting up at specific times, getting dressed properly, and learning things by doing, something of which John Dewey would approve. Purposeful action that would have been far beyond our capacities.

Therein lies a historical paradox in so far as from around the mid-1960s far more serious things were happening on campuses elsewhere. Radical student protest movements gathered momentum. The origins were probably at the University of California, Berkeley. Intensification of the American involvement in Vietnam gave student protest purpose and energy.

The figures who emerged as national leaders included Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, and Jack Weinberg (and a host of writers, singers, student leaders). What became known as the New Left expressed generational dissociation. It was “new” thus different from older radical traditions. Jack Weinberg’s retort to a journalist, “Don’t trust anyone over the age of 30”, was intended to get rid of a nuisance but it became a slogan embodying ostensible generational alienation. These protests had ramifications in many parts of the world, mostly notably in student demonstrations in Paris which began in March 1968 at the University of Paris, Nanterre.

There is a complex, interesting history way beyond the scope of this brief discussion.A more comprehensive approach, which would surely interest students, would include the story of the Chicago 7/8, the emergence of the Baader–Meinhof Group in Germany, and the intersection of these student protests with the civil rights movement. An apparent generational divide drove radicalism in the US and parts of Europe.

The Italian film director and poet, Pier Paolo Pasolini, in retrospect offered an alternative analysis of the student protest in Italy in his poem Il PCI ai giovani! (“The Italian Communist Party to the young!”):

When yesterday at Valle Giulia you and
the policemen were throwing blows,
I sympathized with the policemen!
Because policemen are sons of the poor,
they come from urban or rural outskirts...
They are twenty, your age, dear friends...
The young policemen you were hitting, 
are from a different social class., my friends, (although
in the right) were the rich,
and the policemen (although in the wrong)
were the poor....
—Pier Paolo Pasolini in L’Espresso, June 16, 1968

Pasolini argues that students had freedom to protest because of relative privileges endowed by wealth and class. In so far as serving Vietnam soldiers were subject to abuse, similar factors separated those with choice from those with little choice. There were more fundamental and significant distinctions than those of generational identity.

The Generation Fallacy

In any case, there is considerable confusion about what we mean by generation. Generation X, for example, was invented in 1964 by sociologists Charles Hamblett and Jane Deverson. At that point it referred to those born in the years immediately following WWII—aka Baby Boomers. However, Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland, in his novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, used the term to broadly describe those born between 1965 and 1980. The idea of Generation Y (sometimes known as millennials) is usually credited to Neil Howe and William Strauss, Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069 (1992).

I also wonder why theorists started towards the end of the alphabet. It resonates with misunderstood end of history theories and suggests apocalyptic scenarios. The end of history is usually associated with Francis Fukuyama’s theories developed at the end of the Cold War. Fukuyama was not spreading some doom-laden apocalyptic theory but, in contrast, was imagining the global triumph of Western liberalism. He was spectacularly wrong (as he might now admit) and also suffered the further indignity of being misrepresented. Had they begun with generation C, for example, we might have been a little more cheerful about things.

The term is indeed quite confusing. The Victorians, for example, generally thought of a generation as all of those who were alive at a given point in time. In more recent times, it has been used to describe differences in the social behaviors of groups alive at the same time, but born within a specific age range:

"Generation has a natural element and a social element: in human terms, it applies to birth, procreation and death, but also to the relationships between individuals constituted within the family, and as perceived in cohort terms by society at large. It is in this wider sense that the sociology of generations has sought to understand the concept" (Bristow, 2015, p.20).

In that view, it refers to accidents of time and, simultaneously, the way in which groups are distinguished from each other. These vagaries make generational theories mostly unhelpful. 

It’s All in the Stars

There is a connection here with astrology. Time and place condition personality and fate, depending on the mysterious movements of astral bodies. As a Gemini, Aliza Kelly who wrote about zodiac signs and personality traits in Allure, tells me that I am “spontaneous, playful, and adorably erratic...driven by insatiable curiosity.” I am, therefore, much more fun than Taureses who “enjoy relaxing in serene, bucolic environments surrounded by soft sounds, soothing aromas, and succulent flavors.” In contrast, those born under the Leo star sign are “passionate, loyal, and infamously dramatic,” quite unlike the “elusive and mysterious Scorpio”. To summarize: “fire signs are passionate and exuberant, earth signs are practical and grounded, air signs are intellectual and curious, and water signs are intuitive and emotional”.

There is little difference in the analyses or methodologies employed by astrologists and those engaged in the X, Y, Z, generation game. In the first, the critical determinants are month of birth, time, date, and place. In the second, year of birth is the defining issue. Astrological predictions are customarily found in popular media. Theories of generational identity are to be found in scholarly journals and books. Authors are awarded PhDs. I doubt that Allure has earned such a distinction.

Gemini, my star sign

Caption: Gemini, my star sign.

Talkin' 'Bout My Generation 

People try to put us d-down 
Just because we get around 
Things they do look awful c-c-cold 
I hope I die before I get old 
Why don't you all f-fade away 
And don't try to dig what we all s-s-say 

—The Who (1965)

The lyrics of “My Generation" reflect a deviation from the traditions of the Eden syndrome. Instead of the old bewailing the inferiority of the young, the young retaliate by building a wall of consciousness that excludes people like me (a relic baby boomer). The stutter is written into the lyrics perhaps to indicate explosive fury. 

By the 1970s, punk rock and punk fashions explicitly rejected what were taken to be the beliefs and behaviors of earlier generations.

punk rock fans

Caption: How the kids turned out.

Hostility towards older generations is not limited to the punks (the term in Shakespeare’s times meant prostitute, incidentally). The Conservative politician David Willetts accused people like me of having indulged in five decades of hedonism (he was born in 1956). I deeply regret missing that long party for which, nevertheless, Willetts argues: “the bills are coming in; and it is the younger generation who will pay them...The charge is that the boomers have been guilty of a monumental failure to protect the interests of future generations” (Willetts, 2010, p. xv).

This is an astounding accusation, a more heinous version of the sins of the Eden syndrome. It’s an extreme and extremely stupid act of generalization. If you replace “boomer” with the name of any other groups of people who might have irritated you, the underlying prejudice becomes clear.

There was never actually a punk generation. Instead, there were some young people who, at a given point in time, rebelled against conventions, as they had been doing in many and various ways ever since the idea of youth became common currency in the West. There are significant qualifiers in that thought. A group may construct a separate identity out of a combination of fashion and ideology. To some degree, the capacity to do so is dependent on relative wealth and leisure. Theories of generational identity are, for the most part, made in America, though they have gained credence in much of Europe. 

What do these labels achieve? They obscure the individual in a collective identity. In international education we resist such generalization. Religion, class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference are not determinants of character, or behavior. Why then do we allow accidents of birth and time to divide us?


Books cited:

Bristow, Jennie. (2015). Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Coupland, Douglas. (1991). Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Hamblett. Charles and Deverson, Jane. (1964). Generation "X". New York: Gold Medal Books.

Strauss, William and Howe, Neil. (1992). Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069. New York: Harper Collins.

Willetts, David. (2010). The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – and Why They Should Give it Back. London: Atlantic Books


Thanks, Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Michael Woolf is Deputy President for Strategic Engagement of CAPA: The Global Education Network. Mike has had much of his career in an international context. Prior to working in mainstream international education, he completed a PhD in American Studies and taught literature at the universities of Hull, Middlesex, Padova, and Venice. For four years he worked as a researcher-writer for BBC radio. He has held leadership roles in international education for many years and has written widely on international education and cultural studies. Much of his work has focused on areas of strategic development with particular focus on the status and credibility of education abroad within the wider academic community. He serves on a number of boards and was a member of the Board of Directors of The Forum on Education Abroad from 2006 to 2012. He was the recipient of the Peter A. Wollitzer Advocacy Award (2020) from the Forum on Education Abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: London, England, International Education