Student apathy on the rise

11/19/2010  |  CHARLES A. TITA, Ph.D.
better learning

Education reform has been the subject of an unending debate within the academy and at various levels of government. For newcomers, the general premise is that education standards are low and the debate revolves around ways to raise them. “In the 1980s and early 1990s, several governors argued that they had to test all their students to raise school standards and improve their economies” (The Washington Post. Nov. 14, 2006). In 2010, the debate is still as fierce and unresolved as it was in the 1980s, in spite of enormous investments that have been directed toward this problem at all levels. One problem that is undoubtedly on the rise and contributing to low standards is student apathy. Apathy is defined as “indifference,” or “lack of emotional connection.” This deadening of the senses toward academic achievement is rising on college campuses.

One might argue that it is the very effort to reinforce standardized tests that has inadvertently given birth to student apathy. It is ironic that “testing” rather than “learning” is driving the debate about education reform. The irony takes a more somber dimension with the realization that most of the students reared on standardization are seeing their “learning” only as a function of “tests.” Perhaps a cursory attempt to trace the history of standardization will help shed light on the insurgence of this trenchant phenomenon of student apathy. How did we get here?

Dan Fletcher explains that, “in the Western World, examiners usually favored giving essays, a tradition stemming from the ancient Greeks’ affinity for the Socratic Method. But as the Industrial Revolution (and the progressive movement of the early 1800s followed) took school-age kids out of the farms and factories and put them behind desks, standardized examinations emerged as an easy way to test large numbers of students quickly” (Time. December 11, 2009). It was a flawed education system that was primarily anti-intellectual, as satirized by Charles Dickens in Hard Times. The fictional Gradgrind School symbolizes an industrial society that was ruled by numerical values, at the expense of imagination. Questions required precise answers, representing the genesis of Western standardized testing.

Consequently, we inherited an educational practice that is innately counter-intellectual. The dilemma, therefore, is obvious. While teachers ideally seek to assure that “learning” occurs, the larger economic “system” leads students to see the test as the thing they need in order to get ahead. Ken Robinson argues that this disjunction is the case because we are using a 19th century educational model that was driven by the “economic imperative” of the industrial revolution, based on the “intellectual culture of the enlightenment” (RSA Lecture. Feb. 4, 2009). In its present, misaligned form, the model is inherently counter to the prevailing forces of our own age.

For the model to work, one may argue, it must be adapted to the new circumstances of globalization. The students we train in American universities will live, interact, collaborate and compete with graduates from Canadian, Chinese, Japanese, African and European universities in an increasingly global community. So, these students have to develop facility in cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary competencies.

One is by no means making an argument to debunk testing. To the contrary, the discussion is only an attempt to recognize testing as an educational tool, and to explain that it need not become the goal of academic enterprise. Our over-dependence on standardization has led to unintended consequences, including student apathy. More testing has only prepared our students to become test-taking drones, and, in effect, their understanding of what it means to be an intellectual, as well as the role that the university plays in that process, has been compromised. This seems to be a general trend. Even the Ivy League institutions are not immune to this effect of standardization as confirmed by William Deresiewicz: “Not just the Ivy League and its peer institutions, but also the mechanisms that get you there in the first place: the private and affluent public ‘feeder’ schools, the ever-growing parastructure of tutors and test-prep courses and enrichment programs, the whole admission frenzy and everything that leads up to and away from it.” ( June 1, 2008.) Since students have been led to believe that various tests are the only measurements that enable them to progress towards the world of work, they see testing as a “touch stone” against which success is measured.

As teachers, while it is not probable to expect any drastic, revolutionary changes that would replace the current model of education, there are little steps that we can take to effectuate substantial outcomes. First, we have to recognize that our students are being trained for a market place that is increasingly global, and collaboration, not isolationism, will determine how well they succeed in their lives and careers. Most students do not see how the rising tides of globalization will affect them, until they are out of school. Cross cultural training for the students can be achieved through curriculums that include various learning collaborations.

The internet has made it possible to link classrooms across national divides. On my campus, many faculty colleagues have implemented teaching collaborations with other colleagues at universities abroad, and, in some cases, these collaborations include study-abroad arrangements. When the students return to campus, their views of the world are forever changed. They develop a new kind of respect for and admiration of other cultures. Cross cultural competence has become a broad area of study and aspects of it are discipline-specific, so there is something in it for every course. These kinds of collaboration and immersion defeat apathy.

Another root cause of apathy is the fact that students are constantly being bombarded with images and symbols that present them with a false sense of self and their place in the world. They are reminded that they are of the first world and, therefore, better than others who are of the second world or the third world. These images of static hierarchies are antithetical to the notions of collaboration and cross cultural competence as necessary attributes for success in a global society.

We have to help students overcome the decadent ideas of the past that are still deeply entrenched in our national consciousness. Understanding how globalization is incrementally transforming the world through advances in transportation and telecommunication technologies will enable students to see the world as a dynamic community, not a static organism. The reality of a global market place means that a factory in America is being guided by global economics, not national variables, and that explains why many factories have moved to China and Mexico in just the last decade. That explains, also, why Equatorial Guinea, a small African country in the Gulf of Guinea, has become a major producer of petroleum and now ranks ninth on the World Bank list of countries with the highest per capita incomes.

Because we have created an educational culture that celebrates success on tests, as opposed to success in acquiring new knowledge, more and more students are only interested in mindlessly cramming study materials in preparation for tests. In the middle of an exciting, provocative discussion, students often want me to assure them that what we are studying will be on the test, and they typically request a study guide, too, before the test. Learning, not tests, should always be the end-goal.

Jay Mathews reminds us that learning typical consists of dialogue and inquiry, as demonstrated by Socrates who “tested his students through conversations. Answers were not scored as right or wrong. They just led to more dialogue. Many intellectual elites in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. cared more about finding the path to higher knowledge than producing a correct response.” (Washington Post. Nov. 14, 2006.) Unfortunately, this kind of learning has been eclipsed for many smart students by the anti intellectual ferment of our day, which is rooted in an ironic imperative of economic success.

Our students must be led to the understanding that thinking passionately and critically about ideas is the pathway to intellectual growth. And here lies a fundamental stasis that riddles the debate on education reform. We want our students to be innovative and think outside of the box, but at the same time we box them into curriculums that do not allow pluralistic thinking. We do this through prescribed courses, standard pedagogies and standardized testing. These paradoxes only lead to increasing student apathy. Although there have been efforts to implement cross-disciplinary approaches, the fact is that courses are still ranked based on their economic values. The humanities are routinely at the bottom of the scale, and students see no use for general education courses which, in their minds, bear no apparent relation to their disciplines.

Therefore, standardization and testing are not synonymous. Testing is only one form of standardization. Curricular hierarchy, where subjects and disciplines are ranked in order of “importance,” is another form. As Ken Robinson argues, subject and disciplinary hierarchies constitute another unintended consequence of an educational model designed for another age. (RSA Lecture. Feb. 4, 2010.)

In our quest to prepare students who will be more competitive in the global market place, we seem to over-emphasize the value of the sciences, and almost never talk about the humanities on the same level, although music, for example, has, arguably, played just as significant a role on the global scene as computer science. The message for students, alas, is that there is no economic utility for these courses, which, by the way, we want them to take as part of their general education requirements. And we wonder why students are jaded.

Charles A. Tita, Ph.D. is Associate Professor and Director of Distance Education at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Comments & Ratings

  11/20/2013 10:10:05 AM
hunter kilgore 

im a student in here
  11/20/2013 10:09:08 AM
Xavier Cardenas 

New Comment 
I have student apathy
  3/26/2013 9:52:06 AM

New Comment 
Really good article.
  10/8/2012 11:18:26 AM
Andrew Hopkins 

Great Article 
Great job on the article, it helped me in one of my projects alot! :)
  4/27/2012 9:25:18 AM

Its not the tests. 
I found your article in a search of student apathy. I have read many articles this morning. What I find interesting is that your opinion is in direct opposition to an article I read earlier arguing that the countries that are soundly beating us educationally not only give standardized tests, but use those tests in ways that are meaningful and valuable to the students in their immediate lives. In my mind, that article won the debate. You might want to read it at
  3/21/2011 5:22:40 AM
Steve Murphy 

New Comment 
Thanks for the comment, Aubrey! Glad the article was helpful.
  3/18/2011 7:47:45 PM

Thank you so much for the helpful information in your article. (: I myself am writing an opinion article on school apathy for my high school newspaper and this information has helped me a lot.