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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 01/ 5/2010

Are American students lazy?

By Valerie Strauss

In late December a teacher wrote a piece in the Boston Globe complaining about how lazy her American students are. Kara Miller, 31, who teaches rhetoric and history at Babson College in Boston, wrote, in part,

“Teaching in college, especially one with a large international student population, has given me a stark - and unwelcome - illustration of how Americans’ work ethic often pales in comparison with their peers from overseas.

“My “C,’’ “D,’’ and “F’’ students this semester are almost exclusively American, while my students from India, China, and Latin America have - despite language barriers - generally written solid papers, excelled on exams, and become valuable class participants.”

Not surprisingly, hundreds of people wrote in, some of them hailing Miller as a great truth teller and others attacking her, some even calling her unpatriotic. The discussion spilled into other media.

She wrote a follow-up piece, noting that while she believes international students “often work harder than their American counterparts,” this is emphatically not true across the board.”

Further, she wrote in the follow-up:

“I also noted in the column that there’s too much texting in class, too much dozing off, too much e-mail-checking, too much flirting (I didn’t mention flirting in the first piece, but I’ll mention it here). Obviously, international students do all these things, but I have noticed them more amongst American students.”

Well, as my children sometimes say when I utter something that is painfully self-evidence, “Duh.”

One would assume that students who come to U.S. schools to study are highly motivated (they did, after all, make the considerable effort to get here).

Besides, the experiences of one teacher at one college are hardly sufficient to render a judgment on the whole lot of American students.

Why did I bother writing about it?

Because the very fact that people are debating whether American students are lazy legitimates an illegitimate premise--and that is something that is happening far too much in the world of education today.

We talk about the rise and fall of standardized test scores as if these scores really are the be-all and end-all of student assessment methods.

We talk about “high quality schools” being the solution to the achievement gap as if schools alone can solve the problem--without any chance in the social fabric of the country that leaves too many kids woefully behind in development from their very first day of school.

And this one-dimensional thinking gets in the way of real reform that recognizes the complex nature of teaching and learning.

So if anybody is wondering whether American students are especially lazy, well, some of them are. And some of them aren’t.

And that, my friends, doesn’t get us anywhere.

Let’s have real conversation about real issues.

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 5, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Higher Education  | Tags:  achievement, higher education  
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When I worked in a retail store that hired teenagers, I found that they assumed the work was busy-work. Tell a 16-year-old on her first job to dust a bookshelf and her response is likely to be, "We [another clerk] were talking about a customer--we weren't just wasting time." Or they drag their feet, assuming someone else will take over. It usually took three months before a teenager on his first job discovered that if he was asked to dust a shelf only because it was dusty and if he didn't do it no one else had time to and it remained dusty (and customers quit buying those books). It took a lot longer before some of them learned that they could use their initiative and dust a shelf without being asked just because they had some spare time and it was dusty.

American college students aren't lazy--they are just accustomed from elementary and high school to being told what to do every minute and to being given busy work that has no educational purpose.

(Additionally, all too many of them have household chores assigned to them simply because "it's good for them" or because their parents dislike that particular task and can order them to do it, not because their parents genuinely need help to keep the household in order.)

Posted by: opinionatedreader | January 5, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

"American college students aren't lazy--they are just accustomed from elementary and high school to being told what to do every minute and to being given busy work that has no educational purpose."

I disagree. Students act the same way when they start, so how can it be school that is the cause?

I believe this is more an issue of affluence. America has its share of poverty, but our children generally don't have to worry about the kinds of survival issues as do many of the rest of the world's children. Consequently, American kids have a sense of entitlement that leads many of them to fail to connect the quality of their life in the future to their own effort in the present.

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | January 5, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

This has to be one of the worst pieces of reporting I have ever read in my lifetime. What on earth are you even trying to say?

And yes, American students, on average, are lazy. And that is the key problem in American schools. That and the culture that perpetuates and allows for the laziness.

Posted by: quandary87 | January 5, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

I had to think about this somewhat puzzling article; I know another very experienced teacher who thinks that American students are overall "too lazy" - she has been to Europe a number of times and has European educational contacts - she,herself,was a brilliant student and worked very hard at two good schools to obtain a B.A. and M.A.

After reading the article again,and reading the descriptions of the "texting,
emailing, etc." during class, and thinking over my own experiences with European culture and having taught many ADHD students, I think that the laziness factor is actually a rather complex one and really is important to consider. Some of the following for example:

1. American culture tends to be a very
distractible one; we are quick to
shift our attentions to every new and
shiny gadget/idea that grabs our
attention. We seem to have a
collective short-term memory in terms
of history and NEWS unless it
concerns celebrities. This sort of
conditioning does not prime a student
for the discipline and focused
attention one associates with the
European and Asian cultures which, by
the way, are much older cultures than

2. A matter of cultural protocol: It
used to be considered "rude" to do
something else or to speak when you
were in a situation such as a class
or a meeting and attention was meant
to be given to the person leading the
class or the meeting. Americans are
an independent and sometimes self-
centered people that are apparently
throwing basic manners out of the
window so that they don't have to pay
attention in class.....notice that
this is the third time "attention"
has come up.

3. A teacher needs to address a
situation where too many students are
spending time in class texting (or
whatever) HEAD-ON, be they American
or foreign - valuable real time for
human interaction - not virtual -
is being wasted.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | January 6, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

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