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Students' 7 Deadly Sins

By Dr Art Lynch

The 7 Deadly Sins of Students

Undergraduates increasingly seem to choose self-indulgence and
self-esteem over self-denial and self-questioning
By THOMAS H. BENTON

I've been teaching for about 10 years now, and, of course, I was a
student for 20 years before that. So I have some experience observing my
students' sins, and perhaps even more experience committing them.

The sins that I see in the everyday life of the typical college student
are not great ones. Most of the time, they don't seem like "sins" at
all, even if one accepts the religious significance of the term. But
they spring from thoughts and behaviors that, over time, become habits.

Enabled by institutions, students repeatedly take the path of least
resistance, imagining they are making creative compromises with duty
that express their unique talents. So they choose self-indulgence
instead of self-denial, and self-esteem instead of self-questioning.

They do not understand that those choices will eventually cause more
unhappiness than the more difficult paths they chose not to walk.

The traditional model of the "Seven Deadly Sins" provides a helpful
means of categorizing — and perhaps simplifying — the complicated and
cumulative experience I am trying to describe:

(click "more" or the title at top to read about the 7 sins and students)

Sloth: Students often postpone required readings and assigned
preparations, making it hard for them to understand their classes the
next day. Gradually, lectures and discussions that were once interesting
start to seem boring and irrelevant, and the temptation to skip classes
becomes greater and greater, especially when the classes are in the
morning. Sometimes students arrive late with — in my opinion —
insufficient shame, closing the door behind them with a bang. Slothful
students regard themselves as full of potential, and so they make a
bargain: "I will be lazy now, but I will work hard later." Like St.
Augustine, students say to themselves, "Let me be chaste, but not yet."
More on lust later.

Greed: Students often pursue degrees not for the sake of learning itself
but with the aim of getting a better-paying job, so they can buy a
bigger house and fancier cars than those owned by their parents and
their neighbors. That often leads to greed for grades that they have not
earned. Some students cheat on exams or plagiarize their papers; others,
sometimes the most diligent, harass professors into giving them grades
unjustified by their performance. The goal of such cheaters and
grade-grubbers is not the reality of achievement but the appearance of
it. They will then apply to graduate programs or entry-level jobs that
they do not really desire and for which they are not really qualified.
They want to be lawyers, but they are bored by law courses. They want to
be doctors, but they do not care about healing people. They want to go
into business, not to provide useful products and services, but to get
rich by any means necessary. And so they come to believe that no one has
integrity and that there is no basis — other than the marketplace — by
which value can be judged.

Anger: Seemingly more often than in the past, professors encounter
students who are angered by challenging assignments, which they label —
with bureaucratic self-assurance — "unfair" or even "discriminatory."
When students do not succeed, they sometimes conclude that their
professors are "out to get them" because of some vague prejudice.
Students feel entitled to deference by professors who "work for them and
should act like it." They do not come to office hours for clarification
about an A-; instead, they argue that they are paying a lot of money
and, therefore, deserve a high grade, and, if you don't give it to them,
they will "complain to management," as if they were sending back food in
a restaurant. One hears rumors of cars and homes vandalized by angry
students. But perhaps the easiest places to find uncensored student rage
are the anonymous, libelous evaluations of faculty members found online
at Web sites such as RateMyProfessors.com. Often those evaluations say
less about the quality of a teacher than they do about the wounded pride
of coddled students. More on that topic soon.

Lust: I have seen students come to classes barefoot, with bare midriffs
and shoulders, in boxer shorts, bathing suits, and other kinds of
clothes that, even by fairly casual standards, are more appropriate for
streetwalking than higher learning. When did liberation from uniforms
transform itselfinto the social demand that one prepare to be ogled in
the classroom? It is hardly a surprise that on RateMyProfessors.com,
students are asked to rate their professors' "hotness" — in other words,
the teachers' worthiness to be sexually fantasized about by bored
students. Even in high-school classes, as an observer of novice
teachers, I have overheard lewd remarks about female teachers from
denizens of the back row who fear no rebuke because none is forthcoming
from the current culture.

Gluttony: It hardly needs saying that most colleges struggle to control
alcohol consumption by students and the embarrassing incidents and
tragedies that result from it. But there are other manifestations of
gluttony these days. For example, when did it become acceptable for
students to eat and drink in class as if they were sitting in a
cafeteria? Nowadays, I occasionally encounter a student who thinks it's
OK to consume a large, messy, and odorous meal in class. I once saw a
student eat an entire rotisserie chicken, a tub of mashed potatoes with
gravy, several biscuits, and an enormous soft drink during the first 10
minutes of a lecture. I felt like a jester in the court of Henry VIII.
It seems hard these days to find a student in class whose mouth is not
stuffed with food. Such students will often say that they have no other
time to eat, but previous generations — who were no less busy — managed
to consume small snacks between classes. That is why colleges have
vending machines.

Envy: I think competition is a good thing in education; up to a point,
it encourages students to work harder and excel. But the envious
student, perhaps daunted by some temporary setback, comes to believe
that education is "a rigged game." Envy is the voice of resignation that
cringes at the success of one's peers: "Listen to her, trying to impress
the teacher, like she's so brilliant. I hate her." Envy is the feeling
that no one "earns" anything because there are no objective criteria of
accomplishment; and, as a result, success and failure seem to be based
on political and personal preferences. But envy is not limited to
differences in effort and ability. Even more pervasive is a sense of
unjustified economic inequality, but, it seems to me, the fashionable
students in their convertibles who jeer the commuters at the bus stop
commit a greater sin than those who envy their money.

Pride: I once asked a group of 20 students how many thought they were
"better than their parents"? All of them raised their hands. I didn't
ask, but I assume they all believed they were better than their teachers
too. They would rise higher, be more successful, and transcend the
limitations of their elders. We read this belief in our students'
expressions: "What you know is not worth learning. They're just your
opinions anyway. I am young. I have infinite potential. You are old. And
you're just a college professor. But I will be rich and famous someday."
They have rarely been given a realistic assessment of their abilities
and prospects. Out of this pride — nurtured by the purveyors of unearned
self-esteem, personal grievance, dumbed-down courses, and inflated
grades (often in the guise of liberality) — the opportunity to earn an
education is squandered by prideful students who can make a potential
heaven seem like hell.

The concept of the "Seven Deadly Sins" comes out of the Christian
tradition, but it also has value as an ethical guide or at least as a
means of avoiding unhappiness. Increasingly, as a professor who teaches
undergraduates, I believe that one of the paramount purposes of a
liberal-arts education is to help young people acquire the wisdom to
escape those sins, especially the last one from which the others often
spring.

A liberal-arts education, as I see it, is not about acquiring wealth and
opportunities to further indulge one's desires. Nor is it about
cultivating in students an insular, idolatrous view of their nation,
ethnic group, gender, or religion. It is also not about celebrating the
so-called "great tradition" of authors, philosophers, and artists.
It is about the recognition, ultimately, of how little one really knows,
or can know. A liberal-arts education, most of all, fights unmerited
pride by asking students to recognize the smallness of their ambitions
in the context of human history, and more. Whether it is grounded in
faith or not, a liberal-arts education should help students to combat
the Seven Deadly Sins with the "Seven Contrary Virtues" of diligence,
generosity, patience, chastity, moderation, contentment, and, most
important of all, humility.

Of course, moral perfection seldom arrives at graduation, even in the
best of cases. I teach the courses, and yet I must present myself, at
last, as the "Chief of Sinners." The behaviors I observe in students
often reflect the deeper drives — the resentments and weaknesses — of
their teachers. Perhaps the impulse to identify the sins of others
reflects a corruption more serious than any I have described here. And
that is why, next month, I will sermonize on the "Seven Deadly Sins of
Professors."

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of a soon-to-be associate professor of
English at a Midwestern liberal-artscollege. He welcomes reader mail
directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com.

For an archive of
his previous columns, see
http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/archives/columns/an_academic_in_america/

http://chronicle.com

Section: Chronicle Careers
Volume 52, Issue 32, Page C1