Good Habits

In a comment I made to a recent post I noted that in my view many faculty members I have known, including myself at times, are a bit too lax when it comes to demanding that students toe the line — that they read the assignment and turn in papers on time. In my own experience, the temptation is to give the students a break, especially the good ones, the ones who usually do the work on time. But, as I noted in my comment, this does not serve the student well when he or she graduates — and it does not serve the business well for whom that student goes to work. It’s all about good habits, and they must be learned. And our colleges don’t do a very good job encouraging them, preparing the students for the so-called “real” world.

Aristotle notes that the example of parents who are fair, honest, and decent people will, if they encourage those traits in their offspring, usually raise children who have what used to be called “good character.” Good character is formed by imitation and habit. And if the examples are not there or the reinforcement is not consistent, the chances are the young person will turn our with weak character and perhaps worse.

These are old-fashioned ideas and we are all too quick to toss them in the bin simply because they are old-fashioned, instead of considering whether, perhaps, they are not a good thing to hang on to. But, then, this takes work on the part of parents and teachers and the former are too busy with their own lives these days and teachers are asked to do far too much to ask them to also raise our kids. So character has become something only folks like Martin Luther King, Jr. mention in speeches, not something that we work to develop in the young.

In any event, I do think that teachers in the schools — from the early years right through college — should hold the feet of their students to the fire. They should demand that they get the work done on time and that they develop those habits that will carry them to success when they later graduate or should they continue on in school. I studied with a number of very bright fellow graduate students who failed to earn their PhD simply because they lacked the discipline to get papers finished on time or never were able to complete their dissertation. Allowing students to slack off is doing them no favors, though the temptation is greater today then ever, since student evaluations are made public on the internet and students are encouraged to take classes from “easy” professors. Enrollments can determine such things as job security for the professor. Even tenured professors can be “let go” if it is determined that their department needs to be cut for financial reasons. Thus, there is every temptation to “go easy” on the students. As far as the students are concerned, this translates into a much easier path and they know well how to tread it.

Again, it’s a matter of habit: it’s what they have become used to. And it’s not the kids’ fault. It is the fault of those adults who have shirked their responsibilities to those kids and not taken the time to instill in them the habits of good character that will bring them success later in their lives. I speak generally, of course. But I do think it is a safe claim. Teachers want to be well-liked (who doesn’t?) and they want to hold on to their jobs; the temptation to give way in the face of what are often very poor excuses is great indeed. It is easier to say “yes” even though when a student is allowed to turn a paper in late, for example, it is clearly not fair to those other students who have met the deadline, and, of course, it can become a habit. Indeed, there are a great many reasons for doing the right thing in parenting and teaching. But we all tend to take the path of least resistance. It’s the road well-travelled and we think we are doing the kids a favor when we clearly are not.

And, again, I include myself in this indictment. I was guilty of allowing the better students greater leeway than I should have done. Mea culpa! Good character, and good work habits, come from setting a good example and demanding that the young develop good habits. And it will make the students more successful employees when they graduate and find work.


14 thoughts on “Good Habits

  1. Mea culpa here, as well. I always followed the path of least resistance, in high school and college, and went for the easier classes when I could. I probably still go the easy route. Maybe it’s human nature. But my parents, some teachers, writers, and people like MLK loom large, and their words and behaviors keep me on a fairly good track, despite the occasional offramp.

    Since you seem to be on the front lines, are university administrators as guilty as professors for offering stupid, easy classes? I freaked out when I heard my daughter had chosen “History of Rock and Roll” as an elective. I told her I could teach her that same class, for FREE, and do a much better job than any professor. Universities have no business sucking my tuition to offer crap like this. Especially when, as historian David McCullough says, young people today struggle with basic history concepts.

    • McCullough is right and it’s not just in regard to history, but all subjects. The evidence suggests that the toys these kids are playing with are damaging the left hemisphere of the brain, making analytic thought nearly impossible. And, sad to say your daughter’s experience is not that unusual. The ACTA is active in trying to stop this sort of nonsense all across the country and restore some semblance of respectability to at least the core requirements in our colleges. Culture studies and such things as “popular culture” have become all the rage. I have blogged about this endlessly (some might say!) Thanks for the comment.

      • The ACTA is the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, if you are interested. They operate out of Washington, D.C. They do good work.

  2. Hugh, when I look back to my favorite teachers and professors, the common thread is their ability to explain things. The other is they gave us work and expected us to do it. When we had trouble, their ability to explain made them a valued advisor.

    When I consider my most unfruitful education experiences, they both related to not pushing us. My best two examples were my high school and college Calculus teachers. I learned very little under the first one who gave us all automatic A’s. As a result, I needed to take it again in college as I actually needed to know Calculus for eventual profession. He was better, but was phoning in his teaching, so I could have learned more.

    As you state, teachers who challenge, but help their students are golden. Keith

  3. You are so right, Hugh! We are already seeing the results of this trend. My daughter is a Nursing Supervisor for a large Urology group, and my jaw drops daily at her stories of employees who have low work ethics, no sense of urgency at all to even show up on time every day, let alone make sure their work is done well and on time. It is not unusual for Chris to work a 12-hour day, getting home at 8 or 9 because she had to finish the work that others started and left half-done when they exited at precisely 5:00! And yet, they keep their jobs …

    • Welcome to the Age of Entitlement! These kids have been handed everything and told they can walk on water and they, obviously, believe it! As I say, it’s not their fault. It is the fault of parents and teachers who refuse to demand anything of them and reward them for shoddy work. I watched it happening right before my eyes for forty years. It is truly sad.

      • True, but once those kids become adults, then don’t they have the potential to overcome their upbringing and develop work ethics and values? It’s like people who spend their lives blaming an abusive upbringing for all their mistakes in life … at some point, I hold the individual accountable.

      • Good question. Freud argues that character is pretty much determined by the age of 5. If that’s so, much change thereafter is not likely. Minor changes, to be sure, but character, formed by habits early on, is pretty much determined by that point or soon thereafter. If the child has dishonest parents, for example, he will become a dishonest person, almost certainly. He imitates, becomes habituated, and his character is pretty much set in stone. He’s not likely to suddenly awake and become an honest person. Parents and teachers play a huge role — as do early friends.

      • P.S. I’m not sure if lazy and unmotivated are character flaws that cannot be changed. It does seem to me that teen-agers and folks in their early twenties when they start to work can be encouraged to change their habits and find the motivation to do good work. But your daughter;’s experience is repeated over and over again. I have an attorney friend who has been having a devil of a time finding a new attorney for his office. Their is a glut of folks coming out of law school but they all want flexible hours (and few of them) and high pay. My son, who hires young people in his business, finds the same pattern. It is an interesting question how much people can change. At some point it is a question of moral responsibility — and a serious one at that!

  4. It’s always nice to pull up the rear and enjoy the feedback from others; I wonder if today’s parents and teachers are often ‘tired’ and just don’t have the fight in them – and allow those students to manipulate them it’s a chain of dominoes, but the students are the true losers, as they won’t reach their full potentials/destinies if they don’t shoot for the stars instead of keeping eyes glued to the cell phone screens.

    • It’s possible, but as far as academics go, I think it’s more a fear of not filling the seats. It can, as I said, affect such things as tenure and promotion. And if the classes don’t fill they can be closed and the faculty member find himself or herself with a light teaching load. A few of those and he or she is suddenly expendable! It’s not a healthy situation.

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