On the surface, it appeared to be a sincere question.
"Why," the student asked, "did we have to read this book?"
Another kept the "why" but monetized, asking, "Why did we have to buy this book?"
Recounting the scene in a recent column for the New Yorker, Harvard University professor Louis Menand described as "legitimate" and "interesting" his students' inquiries. He respected their quest for justification, and rightfully so. After all, college isn't cheap.
But between the Facebook fans in lecture halls and the Tetris champions of libraries, I've seen enough in three years of college to know that the students were actually interested in the answer to a yes-or-no question: "Do we really have to read this book?"
There are many exceptions, to be sure, but the question underscores the corner-cutting culture of too many Generation Y-ers who say they are paying for an education when they're actually paying for a degree; of too many pampered minds fulfilled not by intellectual growth but by the satisfaction of getting the A with the least possible effort. It's little wonder so many are graduating as deer in the headlights, stunned by the fact that their diplomas aren't quite the stamps "of approval they need to make a decent salary after graduation," as former Wall Street Journal editor Naomi Schaefer Riley pointed out in the Washington Post.
This is part of the reason colleges have begun to get a bad rap. With students steeped in debt and struggling to find work, the value of college is under attack by people who drop the names of Bill Gates and — no surprise here — Mark Zuckerberg in celebrating those who gave up on higher education and got rich. Meanwhile, degrees from the very core of a higher education, the liberal arts, are discarded as worthless in a "professionalized" economy.
In fairness, colleges do deserve some blame for the attack on the value of an undergraduate degree. Professors have become enablers, dumbing down tests, as economics professor Paul Mason did at the University of North Florida, for some of the most disengaged students they've ever seen. "Not many of them would pass," Mason told the New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Education in April, adding, "We used to complain that K-12 schools didn't hold students to high standards. And here we are doing the same thing ourselves." Maybe Mason would agree with a recent Los Angeles Times opinion piece that declared college "too easy for its own good."
In the age of grade inflation, getting A's too often requires little more than regular attendance. And with websites like Pick-a-Prof — now known as www.myedu.com — students can find the easiest classes with the click of a mouse and coast to graduation.
But the apathy of students — not the administration or professors — is driving these institutional problems. Of the students studied by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia, more than a third studied less than five hours a week. Today's average is 12 to 13 hours per week, half a day less than the 1961 average of 24 hours per week. Mason said many of his undergraduate business students simply don't read their textbooks or do anything, for that matter, that resembles what older generations would have called "studying."
Opportunities are out there, both academic and extracurricular, for students to emerge from the pack, get engaged and become highly employable. There are so many avenues, in fact, that students have no one to blame but themselves for not making the most of college. So, before they take to administration buildings with torches and pitchforks in hand, students should pause and look at their peers playing Tetris and perusing Facebook in lecture halls. Or they could stop and look in the mirror. Then they'll see who's truly responsible for the return — or lack thereof — on their investment.
C. Ryan Barber, a summer intern at the Times, is the 2011 Pittman Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.