While looking around for articles, I happened upon one (of many) that harped upon the millennials' impaired ability to delay gratification. I ended up not assigning it, since the goal of this particular project was not to exemplify the overgeneralization fallacy. I am not convinced that my own generation is morally superior to the current one just because we used to wait three days for the film to develop.
On the other hand, I can't totally disagree that delaying gratification is a challenge for young people today. I'm a parent as well as a professor, and I know what a constant battle it is to persuade my children to wait. It would be very easy to lay the blame on them--or at least on the hyper-technical, innovatively disrupted, constantly changing world in which they are being raised. (Which of course begs the question of who created this hyper-technical, perennially disrupted world in the first place. It wasn't the kids.)
As I was revising an article yesterday in response to a "Revise & Resubmit" request, I noticed a recurring thread in my scholarly writing: a plea for more patience. And no, I'm not addressing "the millennials"; I'm talking to people who are at minimum over thirty, usually older. So many of the educational trends that I perceive as misguided are grounded in wanting results and wanting them NOW. What could be a better case study in collective cultural impatience than NCLB? Once again, it isn't the kids. It's adults who want to see measurable results and want to see them now. It's adults who question the value of the liberal arts and humanities because they can't see a direct, immediate link to that kind of education and the making of money. It's adults who make pedagogical and institutional decisions that don't allow for the factor of time.
Take the teaching of writing, for instance. A a couple of years ago I heard a presentation by a noteworthy cognitive psychologist, Ronald Kellogg, whose research demonstrates that the development of expert writing skills "takes many years of deliberate practice." One of my recent articles built upon this and other findings from cog-psych research. Yet all those of us who teach writing have probably had some conversation along the lines of, "You teach writing? So how come our students can't write?" Or, "Why are they such crappy writers? Didn't they take freshman comp?"
The implication here is that we writing teachers must have done a bad job--not that we are trying to achieve in 14 weeks something which takes more like 14 years. Unfortunately, if you give kids a bunch of K-12 writing instruction that teaches writing in a narrowly prescriptive way, rarely veering beyond the five-paragraph essay or the aspects of literacy that can be assessed on a standardized bubble test, most students are unlikely to morph into expert writers in even the most effective 14-week course. What does work? Patience, practice, and process.
The concept of patience also reared its head in the article I was revising yesterday, about the long-term effects of a liberal arts education. In this piece I quote extensively from the retirement/graduation speech given by my high school drama instructor--one of the most truly gifted and dedicated educators I have ever known, who was both insanely creative and tough as nails (much like my son's current middle-school music teacher). He summarized the lofty goals he held for all of his students with the preface, "This is a review for a very long take-home quiz"--and, he said, this "quiz" will last for the rest of our lives.
And from reading comments on our alumni Facebook page about this man and other effective teachers, the length of the "take-home quiz" is what stands out to me. Some of the people posting comments there now, by their own admission, were hardly paying attention thirty years ago. Many comments were variations on the refrain: "It took me years to understand."
My drama teacher's speech took place 25 years ago, before the "millennial" generation was even born, and in it he harked back to his earliest teaching days, in the fifties. What he aimed for--what he always aimed for--was for his students to learn how to back up their words with actions, to conquer fear and prejudice, to achieve self-confidence through self-discipline, to "trade in tunnel vision for a wide-angle lens," and to "learn the value of patience." Apparently he perceived that those were qualities we needed more of, even in the supposed "good old days" of camera film and vinyl. Teenagers have always been impatient. Patience has always had to be taught.
Of course, doing that requires adults who are willing to model patience themselves.
Digital photography, downloaded music, instant access to full-text articles in databases--actually, I don't have problems with any of that. If I'm visiting with people whom I see maybe once every five or ten years, I'd prefer to know if all our group poses are crappy before the photographic moment passes. If I hear a symphony on Pandora that sends my spirits soaring, I'd rather download it now rather than try to remember later who the composer was (or where I put the piece of paper on which I wrote it down). And when it comes to research, no one will ever convince me that I might achieve some kind of moral benefit by browsing in library stacks for journal articles to photocopy (a task that required driving time and the burning of fossil fuels), rather than clicking on "Full Text" and downloading the article into my computer where I can locate and reference it forever. Take that convenience away from me and, given my heavy teaching and admin load, I probably wouldn't be publishing at all.
In short, I think are many situations in which "instant" (or at least rapid) gratification isn't necessarily a problem. When it comes to the little everyday matters, efficiency does make it possible for us to do more. Yet there are many bigger-picture situations in which patience is not optional because there are no shortcuts: long-term relationships, gardening, pregnancy, raising children, healing (whether physical or emotional), mastery of complex skills--i.e., education. The key lies in knowing which is which--when to go for the "now," and when to understand that "now" is too soon to expect results. Not all seeds sprout on the same day they were watered.
When our class debate concluded with a somewhat mixed verdict, our discussion began with narcissism but soon veered into many other realms. My students collectively acknowledged that they are a little too technology-dependent as well as a little too impatient (though also far more self-reflective on these issues than most older folks give them credit for), They also recognized--correctly--that they are still teenagers, and they anticipate that patience will be a virtue they continue to develop as they mature.
I like to think that will happen, and thinking back to my own adolescence gives me hope. Sometimes when I remember some of my more remarkable teachers from thirty-plus years ago, I realize that in some ways I'm only just now beginning to grasp all that they were really trying to teach me. My own growth, both intellectual and otherwise, has taken time--something I must remind myself on those days when it feels like I'm talking to the walls and I'm not sure whether anyone is listening to me.
I also think about legislation like No Child Left Behind, quick two-year studies like Academically Adrift, and optimistically worded 14-week student learning outcomes, and I wonder if some adults have ever grown out of their adolescent impatience. I also wonder, if the millennial generation truly is less inclined toward delayed gratification than ever, which generation might really be responsible for that.
I don't believe we have to learn how to wait for everything in order to be worthy human beings. But we do need to understand that even as our world becomes more technology efficient, some things remain that are not only worth waiting for, but are impossible to achieve without waiting.