All Commentary
Saturday, February 1, 1997

Book Review: Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America by Peter Sacks

What's Wrong with Today's College Students?

Open Court • 1996 • 201 pages + index • $16.95 paperback

Dr. Yates, a former philosophy professor, is currently adjunct research fellow with the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1994).

This is a disturbing book—all the more since the pseudonymous author is no friend of the free market. Generation X Goes to College is quite unlike the recent academic whistle-blowing efforts of Dinesh D’Souza, George Roche, and Christina Sommers. Peter Sacks divides his narrative into two parts. He starts with an autobiographical account of leaving journalism to teach at a school he does not identify by name. In the second part, he tries to explain what he encountered there.

Sacks found students—popularly labeled Generation X—whose indifference to learning was exceeded only by their brazen rudeness and sense of entitlement. His attempts to motivate them met with resistance; some simply walked out on him. They complained to his superiors about low grades and demands for serious work. One even threatened litigation.

He found himself at the mercy of these students via teaching evaluations, used by tenured faculty to assess their juniors. One of his colleagues quietly advised him, teach to the evaluations. Still a journalist at heart, who taught from love of his subject, he decided to go undercover and find out what it takes to succeed as a professor in the 1990s.

To conduct research for his Sandbox Experiment, Sacks designed a survey to find out what students want from professors. The results are illuminating. Forty-one percent cited entertaining as the most important quality in a professor. Thirty-seven percent cited friendliness and warmth. Just 52 percent thought grades should be based on performance. As for studying, 35 percent studied less than one hour per day.

The second half of Generation X Goes to College searches for reasons. Sacks argues that what has happened to education cannot be understood apart from the cultural shift that set the stage for Generation X, the shift from modernism to postmodernism. Modernism respected science, progress, objectivity, reason; it valued hard work, self-discipline, and respect for authority. Postmodernism is skeptical and relativistic; it replaces the intellectual quest for truth with the subjectivity of feeling, and distrusts all authority. Postmodernism is, in other words, profoundly anti-intellectual. In the cultural ambiance of postmodernism, the classroom is just one more text to be deconstructed.

Now to be sure, few GenXers have heard of, much less read, postmodernist writers such as Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida. But Sacks makes a compelling case that the postmodernist ethos is all around us—from the spectacle of mass-produced images and the dominance of entertainment values; the influence of television, MTV, and other manifestations of pop culture; movies, such as Forrest Gump, which implicitly reject the intellect; to the repudiation of traditional institutions and distinctions based on merit and ability.

What is to be done? Here, Generation X Goes to College falls short. One reason is Sacks’s own left-of-center politics. The ethic of entitlement is not new, after all; as he notes himself, it started with the New Deal and has been spreading ever since. After World War II, we saw more and more consequences of the idea that government owes citizens an education. Public universities burgeoned and standards dropped until students were admitted regardless of their level of preparation. Populist egalitarianism did the rest. No longer content to lower standards until all students are equal, colleges have proceeded to the absurd point where students and their teachers are equals!

Sacks offers three options: (1) capitulate; (2) resist with rear-guard action; or (3) compromise. He chooses compromise. This is not good enough. To be sure, Sacks criticizes grade inflation, open admissions, and the entitlement ethic. But he basically accepts postmodernism. To my mind he hasn’t attacked the problem deeply enough. His real targets should be entitlements and egalitarianism generally, not merely as they apply to GenXers. These, after all, are not products of the postmodernist ethos, they propelled it.

As Sacks admits, the people hurt most by the present situation are the good students, those who set out to earn high marks. Dismissed as geeks and nerds by their peers, and unnoticed by a cynical class of tenured professors, achievers are all but invisible in a system aimed at the lowest common denominator. The same holds for the would-be professor who loves his subject and has high potential as a scholar, but is not a classroom Seinfeld or glorified motivational speaker.

Entertainment, of course, is not bad in itself, but when it becomes life’s (or a culture’s) dominant, all-consuming passion, it spells trouble. When academic culture capitulates, the situation becomes worse. For behind the glitzy facade GenXers accept is—quite literally—nothing, meaning that the logic of postmodernism is personal, educational, and cultural self-destruction.

  • Steven Yates, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy, is a writer and consultant living in Columbia, S.C. He is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (ICS Press, 1994).