Critical ThinkingPop Quiz

Pop Quiz: Students these days…

We’ve all heard it. Most of us have said it. Barely a day goes by when I don’t at least think it: that timeless complaint of pedagogues everywhere, “Students these days just aren’t as prepared/hard-working/bright/polite/serious/talented/literate as they used to be.”

It’s usually followed by a curmudgeonly, “In my day, things were different. Students were much more X, and teachers made sure of it!”

But were they, really? This seems to me like a special pedagogical variant on the good old Golden Age Fallacy, and it’s one that seems to have been around a long time. A perennial favourite quote to demonstrate the fallacy is this one commonly misattributed to Socrates or Hesiod, or even to an inscription in an Egyptian tomb or on a Cuneiform tablet:

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

As it turns out, this particular chestnut is only a century old, a paraphrase of a passage from the 1907 Cambridge dissertation of Kenneth John Freeman, which subsequently took on a life of its own in various newspapers and other outlets over the course of the 20th century. Despite this common misattribution, however, the quote does describe a real phenomenon in ancient literature (which is what Freeman happened to be summarising in the passage). A good, if somewhat more salacious example can be seen in the following bit of Aristophanes’ Clouds, wherein a speaker offers a bit of a parody of the phenomenon:

I will, therefore, describe the ancient system of education, how it was ordered, when I flourished in the advocacy of justice, and temperance was the fashion. In the first place it was incumbent that no one should hear the voice of a boy uttering a syllable; and next, that those from the same quarter of the town should march in good order through the streets to the school of the harp-master, naked, and in a body, even if it were to snow as thick as meal. Then again, their master would teach them, not sitting cross-legged, to learn by rote a song […] But if any of them were to play the buffoon, or to turn any quavers, like these difficult turns the present artists make after the manner of Phrynis, he used to be thrashed, being beaten with many blows, as banishing the Muses. And it behooved the boys, while sitting in the school of the Gymnastic-master, to cover the thigh, so that they might exhibit nothing indecent to those outside; then again, after rising from the ground, to sweep the sand together, and to take care not to leave an impression of the person for their lovers. And no boy used in those days to anoint himself below the navel; so that their bodies wore the appearance of blooming health. Nor used he to go to his lover, having made up his voice in an effeminate tone, prostituting himself with his eyes. Nor used it to be allowed when one was dining to take the head of the radish, or to snatch from their seniors dill or parsley, or to eat fish, or to giggle, or to keep the legs crossed.


Of course, the “Good Old Days” are probably not the only fallacy at work in the “Students These Days” phenomenon. I’d wager that a big part of it is over-generalisation from our own personal experiences as students. After all, back when we were in school we did not have the same kind of familiarity with the work and behaviours of other students that we have now as educators. And it goes without saying that future educators make up a very biased sample of the student body overall.

Lastly, we have to always keep in mind that while our knowledge and life experience continues to increase over time, the knowledge and life experiences of the students we teach are pretty much always going to stay static. This has the inevitable effect of widening the gap between us as the years go on, and contributing to our own impressions of generational difference.

Of course, it might just be that students today are terrible and society will inevitably collapse. After marking a pile of essays I must admit I usually find this to be the likeliest scenario.

What has been your experience? Do you find students today to be substantially different from those in the Good Old Days? What kind of differences have you observed, and to what might you attribute them?


The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 3pm ET (or later T_T).

Featured image: Detail of Euclid or Archimedes instructing the youths, from Rafael’s fresco “The School of Athens” (1509). Vatican City: Apostolic Palace, Stanza della Segnatura.

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal ( if you like his work!


  1. April 15, 2013 at 9:36 pm —

    The community I’m teaching in is very, very different from the one in which I grew up. I would be more likely to attribute that to any changes than just ‘the times.’

    Mostly, though, I remember how disruptive and foul-mouthed and inappropriate my classmates and I were. I was in the honors classes, so we were probably a little better behaved in general than the kids I teach now in the gen-eds (but probably not by much). More than anything, I am really, really surprised by how much these kids get caught. Middle school is a place where many kids test out how horrible they can be, but I do not remember me, my friends, or even some of the rabble-rousers getting caught nearly as much as these kids. We were awful little people, but we were awful little people that didn’t get busted as much.

  2. April 15, 2013 at 11:40 pm —

    I don’t know. I find that I encounter a ton of entitled students who expect everything to be handed to them and not have to work for it. This is, of course, not true for all students or even most of them necessarily. Not sure if it’s been measured or kept track of in any meaningful way.

    Here’s an interesting post that was recently on Sociological Images talking about the rise of narcissism among college students:

    • April 16, 2013 at 6:57 pm —

      In the way I don’t blame them…standards even at top universities are low enough that the clever ones usually can get through without having to work too hard for anything. It’s often a shock to them to find anything else to be the case.

      That isn’t to say that it’s difficult to tell they’re coasting; it’s just that for a lot of courses there is departmental pressure to keep the grades up regardless of performance, so they get the A for fulfilling the minimum requirements rather than for any exceptional work or insight.

  3. May 4, 2013 at 8:53 am —

    At my teeny school, our top performers become big fish in a very small pond (<900 students) so everyone knows who they are, and sometimes they begin buying too much of their own press, as it were. It can make them pretty entitled and complacent. I've never figured out what should be done about that, though, if anything; I certainly don't wish to "cut them down to size." Mostly we try to have programs in place to challenge the brightest, like offering an honors senior project in place of the standard required one.

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