Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Newsflash: Statistical Analyses of U.S. College Students Yield Contradicting Results

June 1st, 2010 by Ajuan Mance

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Just as each generation of teens and young adults needs to distance itself from the values and culture of the previous generation, so too does each generation of mature adults — 30-somethings, 40-somethings, and beyond — need to amass “factual” information to support its perception that today’s young people are dumber/lazier/more apathetic/less ambitious/less curious and generally worse (at everything)  than they were when they were young.

The latest round in this cycle has appeared in the form of a recently completed study described in U.S. News and World Report (USN) and other media outlets. In an article headlined “Today’s College Students More Likely to Lack Empathy: Generation Me’ Tends to Be Self-centered, Competitive, U.S. Research Shows,” USN quotes the University of Michigan’s Susan Konrath who explains, “College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.” Konrath was the lead researcher in this study.

Her findings are based on a review of 30 years worth of scholarship on college students and empathy, which seems to be a broad enough scope for any study of changing attitudes; and yet I remain skeptical.

Aside from the existence of studies indicating that today’s students are “more globally aware” and “less materialistic” than previous generations of undergraduates (see The Chronicle of Higher Education), more willing to date other students of different races (see The Daily Orange), and more willing to date across religious lines than previous generations (see Knox, Zusman, and Daniels), my own observations as a person who has spent the last 26 years on college campuses is that today’s students are considerably more tolerant and even celebratory of all kinds of differences than they were in the mid-1980s. Maybe Konrath’s notion of empathy has nothing to do with students’ acceptance of racial, gender, class, and sexuality differences. Personally, I can imagine no greater test of empathy.

Or, maybe, the question of empathy is the wrong one to ask in the first place. Maybe today’s students are less empathetic and more self-centered than previous generations. But maybe students’ ability to walk in another students’ emotional shoes doesn’t matter in the way that Konrath and her colleagues assume it does. In terms of one’s ability to create community with others, to support social justice-based ideals, and to create a better world for all people, maybe today’s generation is able to be generous to others, to treat others equally and with respect whether they can imagine what things are like from their perspective (Konrath), or not.

In addition to embracing difference with greater ease than previous generations, today’s students are voting at a higher rate that students have in decades; and they are interested in and involved in social-justice-related activities at greater rates than their predecessors, as well. If this is self-centeredness, then bring it on!

Posted by Ajuan Mance

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