Sunday, September 17, 2023
Law students (and students generally) are different than students from twenty or thirty years ago. Below are a few observations about the current generation of students, and a recommendation concerning how to adapt to a changing student population. Of course, this does not apply to all or even the majority of students, but the issues listed below are certainly more prevalent now in universities and law schools.
1. Students can be entitled and narcissistic.
Some students are simply entitled and, quite frankly, narcissistic. They lack respect for authority and do not adhere to common norms of civility and respect (e.g., shouting down a speaker with whom they disagree). They believe that they are entitled to a certain grade, to contact a professor at any time of the day, or to challenge any decision that is inconsistent with their expectations (often to administrators so concerned about student retention that they yield to every demand, however unreasonable). They often don’t respect boundaries – or their professors. And they rarely take accountability for their actions, instead blaming others for their failures or behavior. Not to mention, these students’ parents, who are often living in a state of ignorance and believe that their child can do no wrong, react with hostility when their child is subject to criticism.
2. Students don’t buy into the process of what it takes to be successful.
Achieving success and performing at a high level requires grit. It requires hard work and sacrifice. It demands that you learn from failure and respond effectively to adversity. It requires discipline, consistency, and commitment. It requires you to take responsibility for the choices and decisions that you make daily. And it requires a recognition that your choices, not your circumstances, determine the likelihood of achieving your goals. Many students, however, do not embrace these principles or the process that it takes to be successful. In fact, over sixty percent of university students have admitted to cheating.
3. Students lack mental toughness – and other intangibles.
Some students are too sensitive. They often lack the mental toughness and other intangibles necessary to achieve success in a competitive legal profession. For example, some students react negatively to constructive criticism. They respond poorly to adversity. They make excuses for an unacceptable work product and eschew accountability for their choices. They allow external factors to affect their self-perception and motivation and blame others whenever they experience failure. And they do not interact and work effectively with others, especially those whose viewpoints differ from their own. As one scholar explains:
Gen Z has less resilience than other generations, … It’s less that faculty are making their courses harder and more that students feel greater anxiety and overwhelmed when they perform worse than they expected. This puts them in a ‘fight or flight’ state, and often they’re fighting to get grades changed or to discipline faculty members.
This is a sad state of affairs.
4. Students struggle with mental health issues.
Increasingly, students struggle with mental health and substance abuse issues, which affects their ability to study effectively and perform at a high level. To be sure, approximately sixty percent of college students meet the criteria for at least one mental health problem. One survey concluded as follows:
Specifically, 44 percent of students reported symptoms of depression; 37 percent said they experienced anxiety; and 15 percent said they were considering suicide—the highest rate in the 15-year history of the survey. More than 90,000 students across 133 U.S. campuses participated in the survey.
Undoubtedly, this affects students’ ability to succeed academically and professionally.
5. Students are consumed with and affected negatively by social media.
Many students are consumed with social media, often interested in how many 'likes' they receive for a post on Instagram or Facebook, or engaged in a debate on X, formerly known as Twitter. And for some students, social media is their primary source of information. Unfortunately, this can affect students’ mental health and affect their ability to succeed academically. As one commentator states, “[e]xcessive social media use can … take a toll on young people's mental health.” Indeed, “[a]s college-age students are spending up to an hour or two a day at a minimum on social media, it is cutting into time that they could be studying or engaging in actual social activities.”
6. Students enter law school lacking analytical thinking and writing skills.
Students often enter law school without adequate analytical thinking and writing skills, often because their undergraduate institutions did not sufficiently emphasize the development of these skills. This places a substantial burden on professors, especially legal writing professors, to prepare students for law practice. It should come as no surprise that many judges and lawyers criticize law graduates’ writing skills, which can be traced to inadequate emphasis on developing writing skills at the undergraduate level (and to some extent, in legal education).
7. Students are too political.
Some students have such strongly held political views that they develop their relationships with, and judgment of, others based on whether they agree with their views. This has led to a failure to respect different viewpoints, which is one of the primary benefits of a diverse student body. It has led to a lack of civility and respect among those with whom students disagree. It has made compromise impossible, and a failure to appreciate nuance prevalent. Indeed, one needs only to look to students’ behaviors in response to university-sponsored speakers that they don’t like to see how pathetic some students have become. If you doubt this, consider how many students claim to feel “unsafe” or cry, scream, or collapse whenever a professor or student says something that “offends” them. To know that college and even law students behave like this shows how deeply troubled students have become.
Students and future advocates need to understand that, if you are pro-choice, you can respect and be friends with someone who is pro-life. If you voted for President Biden, you can respect and be friends with someone who voted for Donald Trump. The fact that this even needs to be stated shows how significantly our educational system and culture has declined.
How should law professors (and professors generally) respond to this reality?
It begins with university administrators. If administrators coddle entitled students and accommodate their every demand, this leaves professors powerless to do anything to ensure student accountability and success. After all, if professors know that their dean will not support them if a conflict with a student arises and where the student is at fault, there is no incentive for professors to do anything other than coddle students and give inflated grades.
More fundamentally, however, educators, including law professors, should hold students to high standards and focus on preparing them for the real world. This means teaching students how to think analytically and write persuasively and holding them accountable for subpar work. It also means teaching soft skills such as mental toughness, resilience, perseverance, grit, and respect for diverse viewpoints, and emphasizing the coping skills needed to control their emotions and deal with the challenges that law and life invariably present.
After all, students need to know how to handle adversity. They need to learn how to respect and work with people who think differently from them – and who they do not like. They need to deal with failure constructively and cope with setbacks effectively. They need to learn that crying and screaming whenever things don’t go their way (or when someone disagrees with them) will not serve them well as a lawyer (or in any aspect of life). As one commentator explains:
College is not summer camp, college is not group therapy, college is not a sanatorium, college is not (despite the current fad for "adventure" bonding experiences prior to the beginning of classes) survival training. They are students (the word comes from the Latin for "to apply oneself seriously"), and the best thing I can do for them, as their professor, is to treat them not as children but as serious people who are there to be serious about the subjects they study.
Most importantly, students need to know that they are not entitled to anything – except what they earn, and teachers should know that coddling students only sets them up for failure.
 See Niraj Chokshi, Attention Young People: This Narcissism is All About You (May 15, 2019), available at: Attention Young People: This Narcissism Study Is All About You - The New York Times (nytimes.com)
 See Brett A. Sokolow, College Students Are Sooo Sensitive (Jan. 6, 2016), available at: College Students Are Sooo Sensitive... | HuffPost College
 Chris Burt, Are Gen Z’s Complaints About College Workload Warranted, Or Are They Just Entitled? (October 16, 2022), available at: Are Gen Z’s complaints about college workload warranted, or are they just ‘entitled’? - University Business
 See Mary Ellen Flannery, The Mental Health Crisis on College Campuses (March 29, 2023), available at: The Mental Health Crisis on College Campuses | NEA
 See Peter Suciu, Social Media Continues to Affect the Health of College Students (December 12, 2022), available at: Social Media Continues To Affect The Health Of College Students (forbes.com)
 See John Schlueter, Higher Ed’s Biggest Gamble, Can colleges truly teach critical-thinking skills? (essay) (insidehighered.com)
 Georgetown University, One in Four College Students Say They Ruled Out a School Due to Its State’s Political Climate (A One in four college-bound students say they ruled out a school due to its state’s political climate - THE FEED (georgetown.edu)
 See Karen Sloan and Nate Raymond, Stanford Apologies After Law Students Disrupt Judge’s Speech (March 13, 2023), available at: Stanford apologizes after law students disrupt judge's speech | Reuters
 See Josh Blackman, Students at CUNY Law Protested and Heckled My Lecture About Free Speech on Campus (April 12, 2018), available at: Josh Blackman » Students at CUNY Law Protested and Heckled My Lecture about Free Speech on Campus
 Thankfully, at Georgia College and State University, I have outstanding administrators and students who inspire me to continue teaching.
 Daniel Mendelsohn, How To Raise a Proper College Student (June 28, 2017), available at: Professor Daniel Mendelsohn On Entitled College Students - How to Raise a Proper College Student (townandcountrymag.com)
 See Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (Penguin, 2018).