What’s the Matter with Kids Today?

The classic musical “Bye Bye Birdie” tells the story of rock ’n’ roll star Conrad Birdie (think Elvis Presley) and the mayhem that results when he arrives in a small Ohio town.  Like many depictions of that era, the 56-year-old production features a song, “Kids,” that describes the many flaws of young adults in the 1950s.  The refrain is “What’s the matter with kids today?” and the song describes “kids” as “disobedient,” “disrespectful,” “crazy,” and “lazy.”  In a moment of comedic nostalgia, it asks “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?”

Today’s media seems to be singing a new version of “Kids.”  A recent column by Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post, titled “Liberal intolerance is on the rise on America’s college campuses,” cites a recent research survey in which 43 percent of entering freshman said “colleges have the right to ban extreme speakers.”  Rampell adds that a number of student groups (now about 76) have presented “demands” to their university administration, and several university presidents have stepped down in response to student protests.  Collectively, Rampell views these developments as a shift on campuses in which liberal voices are “muzzling” other voices on campus.  Countless similar articles in the media have focused on related issues like trigger warnings, micro-aggressions and the “coddling” of today’s students.

Like the adults in “Bye Bye Birdie,” the media critics and their analyses are superficial and their characterizations fundamentally inaccurate.  I interact with our students every day.  I see our students at their best and their worst.  I see snapshots of their achievements and hear the extended narratives of their lives. There is so much more than the caricatures presented in the media.

Scene from "Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights," SDSU production December 2015

Photo by Ken Jacques

Our students are ambitious, talented and hard-working. Every day, I meet a student who is pursuing a double major and leading one or more co-curricular groups.  They are students like the young man in our M.A. program in history who has been offered full scholarships to Ph.D. programs at the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan.  They are artists and student-athletes who bring their unique talents and extraordinary commitment to our community.  They are the student from our Imperial Valley Campus who recently took a two-hour Greyhound bus ride to the San Diego campus for a one-hour co-curricular activity because “he wanted to learn more.”

Our students are embracing the opportunities afforded by an SDSU education. Over 550 students will be participating in our Student Research Symposium next month, and over 1,000 students are participating in the Aztec Mentor Program. Our ZIP Launchpad and Lavin Entrepreneurship Center are preparing future entrepreneurs, and our students are leading efforts in sustainability and service learning.

Aztecs are adventurers.  Students are coming to San Diego State from across the globe, seeking to advance their educations and their lives.  As just one example, I recently met an enthusiastic young woman from a small town in Minnesota who was brave enough to leave the world she knew to join us here in San Diego.  Our California students are embracing this ethos of adventure, venturing out to prepare for their roles as global citizens.  Over 2,400 students had an international experience last year, and we rank 15th in the nation for study abroad.

To speak directly to students’ desire to ban extreme speakers, it may reflect a noble longing (albeit one pursued through the wrong means).  Our students have grown up in one of the most diverse societies in history.  They have seen it fractured by faction, and they have heard many political leaders say hateful things.  For many students, the desire to ban extreme speakers comes from a well-meaning desire to protect themselves and to bring harmony to our community.  This laudable desire for community also manifests itself in other ways, such as in enthusiastic participation in our One SDSU Community initiative – which brings students from many groups together for community service and dialogues on our diverse communities.

Our students are not constitutional lawyers when they enter SDSU (although they may be someday), and they are not always intimately familiar with our longstanding American tradition of protecting speech, regardless of its content. As an advocate for freedom of expression, I have had extended discussions with many students who come to more nuanced understandings of the implications of banning speakers when they learn more about the historical and constitutional contexts.

This brings me to my essential point.  It is our collective responsibility and privilege to support today’s students and to help them develop into the future leaders of our society.  Our extraordinary faculty and staff support this important work every day, but everyone in our community can participate.  We can join our community to support students who are participating in artistic, cultural and athletics events.  We can provide funds to support scholarships and programming to help students pursue an education for leadership in the 21st century.  We can all make an important difference for our students and for our society’s future.

The question “What’s the matter with kids today?” is, to be blunt, the wrong question.

The right question is “How can we work as One SDSU Community to support our students?”

Every day, members of our community give profound and enthusiastic answers to this question, and for that I am extremely grateful.

SDSU Mechatronics Club members take their first-place winning robo-sub to the pool in the 2015 international competition.


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19 responses to “What’s the Matter with Kids Today?

  1. SDSU leads the way in this exciting, sensitive and unpredictable era of instant expectations.
    Leadership still counts!

  2. Thank you for writing this article. I’ve been student of human behavior my entire adult career and have been studying or working with young adults and adolescents for nearly two decades. I’ve met so many different students over my professional career, and it is refreshing and validating to hear that someone at the helm of the university at which I am employed has come to the same conclusion that I have. It’s always bothered me a little to hear or read about the failings of this generation — that perspective just seems to miss the mark and feels out of line with my own experience. Our job is to help them leverage their strengths with our collective mentoring to achieve a bright future for them and for ourselves.

  3. Joseph Alter

    Bravo! Many of these students are incredibly well meaning and highly ethical human beings. That they come to University without full understanding is not, nor should it be, surprising. All understanding is incomplete. As adults, professors, mentors, and role models it would do us well to remember that.

  4. David Dozier

    I fully concur with President Hirshman’s assessment of today’s SDSU students and Millennials in general. Passionate young people do sometimes miss the nuances of freedom of expression. (Been there; done that.) But generally, the young people I teach at SDSU are truly phenomenal. President Hirshman is right. “What’s the matter with kids today?” is the wrong question. A cursory review of Pew studies of Millennials shows that they are idealistic progressives. We Baby Boomers used to be that way. Here’s a better question: What’s wrong with Baby Boomers today? Baby Boomers should remember that the older generation said the same crap about us back in the ’60s and ’70s.

  5. Tita Gray

    Thank you so much for writing this blog post. I often ask people how they were described during their era and the conversation takes on a vast shift. Our generational differences should be used as a platform for learning, understanding, and empathy. We cannot expect students to be where we want them to be, we need to meet them where they are and help them to flourish.

  6. Brilliant and well-put. I like the bluntness of the question…it’s not just the kids/students today. It’s us too! We also have to keep up with the times. We also need to remember that WE are the generation that brought up the current generation. We as mentors, professors and teachers are the lucky few who have been bestowed with the distinct pleasure of being ‘forever students’…just the way learning never ends, teaching to learn never ends, nor does learning to teach ever end. If you want to see the change, be the change. 🙂

  7. Alison

    I love SDSU students both domestic and international!
    Meeting and interacting with students that are living “outside of the box”, embracing the international experience makes me feel there’s great hope for our future generations! The matter with students today is that they are always asking questions, challenging themselves personally and academically, that’s what matters!

  8. Lily Zhou

    Kids are kids. Parents and teachers do play a key role in their lives.

  9. Tammy Blackburn

    Well said President Hirshman! Students of today, leaders of tomorrow. Let’s lead them to leadership.

  10. t

    Generalizations often span a spectrum: that is the way it is.

    The author here creates a strawman argument by focusing on one frequency and uses it to turn an eye against a malignancy that is corrupting the entire spectrum.

    While student activism is fundamentally a good thing, it has been co-opted by the neurotic and self-indugent. In the process, voices with valid arguments are being silenced.

    The recent Title IX inquisition into Laura Kipnis, the censoring of Cathy Young at Oberlin, or the attempts to remove statues of Thomas Jefferson, all bear witness to this neurosis.

    Rather than ignore what is really happening on our campuses (which the author here seems to want to do), we might do better to listen not ONLY to the excellent SDSU students focused on their degrees, but also to the reaction of students themselves to the current hysteria. And not wave self-indulgent hands to redirect attention.

    For contrary to what is presumed in this article, the corruption of the spectrum is real. And there IS something going wrong.

  11. Forest Rohwer

    Often I hear comments about the students complaining too much. However, it is important to remember that 99% of the students are not complaining (and hence you are not hearing from them). The vast majority of the students are trying their best. In the classroom, our SDSU students excel when you simply set very high standards and then sit back and watch them rise to the challenge.

  12. Tim Bochard

    Excellent perspective. Our generation’s “walk” was far from perfect. We owe thanks to our parents and mentors who patiently taught and guided us through some pretty tumultuous and, quite frankly, challenging times. Like the generation before us, we come full circle and find that it is a journey, not only for those we mentor, but for ourselves as well. We begin as students, learn from history, are tempered by experience, and for a fortunate few ultimately grow in a direction that then has the privilege of mentoring the next generation. We support and encourage just like many have done for us. It is our responsibility to teach and share, subject to the laws and guiding principles of our country. That is our purpose. It has always been that way.

  13. Rachel Zahn

    Thank you for standing up for this generation of students. I may be biased because my own kids are among them, but I see a cohort that is engaged, committed, and driven by determination to make the world a better place than they found it. Can we say the same for our age group?

  14. Kendall Long

    I also had interaction with many great and successful students at SDSU during my 36 years of service there. However, President Hirshman’s praise is focusing on a small specific group of students while the Catherine Rampell is looking at data reflecting the whole. One cannot say “apples and oranges” fast enough. I am myself a liberal, but could see we had a serious problem with free speech on college campuses when a former Secretary of State of the United States, Condoleezza Rice, was disinvited as Rutger’s commencement speaker in 2014. In fact, her “disinvite” was just the highest profile one that year. To get a feel for how extensive the problem is please see: https://www.thefire.org/cases/disinvitation-season/
    Unless we are able to listen to our opponents (and have the opportunity to speak ourselves), neither side will ever learn anything.

  15. Jim

    President Hirshman describes the high quality of facilities at SDSU, as well as the commendable achievements of students. And he reminds faculty and staff of its responsibility to develop these young minds to be future leaders. I agree. However, leadership involves critical thinking and the ability to incorporate multiple points of view into decision making. Dis-inviting distinguished experts because some students misunderstand free speech suggests to me that the faculty and staff have more work to do.

  16. Celia Sigmon

    Thank you for your thoughtful commentary. I too am hopeful about the students I interact with. Overall I find them not only engaged but truly concerned about problems facing our country and the world. What impresses me most is that many have a clear sense of how they can focus their careers to address these problems, not for personal gain but in service.

  17. Reblogged this on History + Technology and commented:
    Great insights about Millennial students.

  18. Tina Gov

    Great read and very eloquently written, President Hirshman! Many students I meet with are engaged in high-impact practices or are seeking for opportunities to get involved. I believe we are here to challenge and support our students. Go Aztecs!

  19. Chuck Dintrone, retired SDSU Librarian

    The idea of kids not being like they were or “bad” in some way goes back famously to Ancient Greece. I have counter-argued this for years as a librarian at SDSU. Yes, there are bad kids, both morally, academically, attitude wise but that has been true forever. There are also the outstanding students and teens that give us hope for the future. I often talk about my experiences and my teenage grand niece (an amazing person) but I also found reinforcement last weekend as a judge at the Student Research Symposium. It especially is disconcerting when our own peers (faculty and staff at SDSU, e.g.) make this cry of things aren’t what they used to be. It is important to note that those in this position (including myself) were the best students and that in our day there was always a range, as there still is.

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