Where’s the Drive to Perform?

Chris Spurlock, the Missouri student with the dream site and resume. (Photo courtesy of Chris Spurlock)

I’ve spent much of the past week connecting the literature I’ve been reading with the experiences I’ve been having in the classroom.

Let’s start with the experiences:

We’re at midterm in spring semester at Simpson College now, always a time to take stock and let students know how they’re doing in class. In a senior seminar in multimedia journalism, one-third of the class is failing and more are at or near the minimum level necessary for passage. It’s going to be nerve-wracking for many of these students in the weeks to come.

The students will likely have their own explanations for why they’re in the positions they find themselves. Mine is that many of the students aren’t living up to my expectation that graduating seniors in the seminar be running on all cylinders and ready to take off in their careers. As capstone students, they should be able to write and report journalistically; handle video, photo and audio in ways that will tell audiences stories; and understand the importance of website promotion and metrics.

To be sure, many of my seniors are doing quite well on these measures. (Would love to see more like Chris Spurlock, the Missouri wunderkind who’s become the rage of the Internet world based on his personal website and resume, but our top performers are doing quite well.)

But many are not. Many aren’t even close.

I’ve raised this issue in other forums and have proposed a couple of reasons for it:

  • The poor state of high school journalism education means that fewer students come to university with a sense of journalism as a calling or more with a sense of the much broader field of “communication” as a bet-hedger in a tough market in which a job — any job — after college will do.
  • The well-documented directionless drift of a growing number of undergraduates, particularly male students, who pile on massive amounts of debt without any clear sense of where they’re headed. Or, for that matter, any urgency to figure it out. As author Kay Hymowitz argues in a recent Wall Street Journal excerpt from her forthcoming book, “Manning Up”: “Most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance.”

What’s driven this home this past week is my reading of “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” — the controversial new book by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa that argues that vast numbers of undergraduate students are learning virtually nothing in terms of critical thinking and writing in their first two years of college. And, Arum and Roksa further argue, they’re not learning much more in the final two years of their studies.

In any environment, that would be disturbing news. In the present context, when students are graduating massively in debt and with little chance of succeeding professionally if they don’t find drive and direction and purpose — and a resume — as soon as possible in their college careers, it’s downright depressing.

Arum and Roksa’s work has gotten plenty of publicity and debate in higher-education circles since its publication in January. To be clear, it’s not that students aren’t learning anything during their four years of higher education. It’s just that they’re not picking up the critical skills and habits of mind that once distinguished colleges and universities from trade schools, community colleges and on-the-job training.

Among the habits of mind journalism students have to have to succeed are those of drive, ambition and enterprise. They have to want to recognize stories, go after them and tell them with passion and commitment. Too many lack an entrepreneurial heart or an understanding that professionals are professionals 24/7, not just 9 to 5.

It’s not the kids’ fault. Arum and Roksa argue. At least not in the main.

To the extent that students are to blame, it’s that most young people entering higher education see it more as a time of social development rather than intellectual and academic growth. But why do they see it that way? Because no one else in the culture has shown them precisely how a higher education will get them realistically from Point A to Point B.

The great issue, Arum and Roksa write, is that “no actors in the system are primarily interested in undergraduate student academic growth, although many are interested in student retention and persistence.” That includes public school systems that often poorly prepare students for university demands; parents; faculty, students, staff and administrators; and policymakers. In a bottom-line, results-oriented world, what everyone seems to want is the credential rather than the learning.

And that may be what a good number of my seniors are going through — they see the credential dangling just a couple of months in front of them. But they’re not necessarily wondering about just how much drive to perform will get them there.

I put the question out on Twitter and Facebook earlier today, asking why students don’t push themselves the way they should to give themselves the best possible chance to get a start in their careers. Here are some of the answers from Twitter:

And here’s what the posters on Facebook had to say:


  1. One thing that I think impedes the “entrepreneurial spirit” that journalism requires is that, currently, our entire society system seemingly offers no rewards for students who strive to break away from the establishment. We’re told that getting a job is all about who you know, who and what you’re associated with and getting as prestigious an internship as possible. When it comes to building a resume, it seems much more risky to use energy on independent endeavors than it does to simply join the right organizations.

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