Is Gen Z resistant to growing up? A leading developmental psychologist and an expert in the college student experience debunk this stereotype and explain how we can better support young adults as they make the transition from adolescence to the rest of their lives.
Experts and the general public are convinced that young people today are trapped in an extended adolescence―coddled, unaccountable, and more reluctant to take on adult responsibilities than previous generations. Nancy Hill and Alexis Redding argue that what is perceived as stalled development is in fact typical. Those reprimanding today’s youth have forgotten that they once balked at the transition to adulthood themselves.
From an abandoned archive of recordings of college students from half a century ago, Hill and Redding discovered that there is nothing new about feeling insecure, questioning identities, and struggling to find purpose. Like many of today’s young adults, those of two generations ago also felt isolated and anxious that the path to success felt fearfully narrow. This earlier cohort, too, worried about whether they could make it on their own.
Yet, among today’s young adults, these developmentally appropriate struggles are seen as evidence of immaturity. If society adopts this jaundiced perspective, it will fail in its mission to prepare young adults for citizenship, family life, and work. Instead, Hill and Redding offer an alternative view of delaying adulthood and identify the benefits of taking additional time to construct a meaningful future. When adults set aside judgment, there is a lot they can do to ensure that young adults get the same developmental chances they had.
Fostering the development of an engaged citizenry is one of the founding principles of American higher education (Bok, 2006; Reuben, 1996). After decades of concern about declining civic engagement among American college students, the 2016-17 academic year saw the rise of a new campus political movement. For students who started college in Fall 2016, their first year of school took place against the backdrop of a dramatic American presidential election and the emergence of this new wave of youth activism. My study follows students during this pivotal year as they grappled with the increasingly polarized political discourse and negotiated their roles in the emerging resistance movement.
I employ a multiple case study approach to examine groups of first-year students nested within three highly-selective, residential, liberal arts schools: Harvey Mudd College, Middlebury College, and Harvard College. Using the ethnographic method of portraiture (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997), I share the perspectives of 42 students from across the political spectrum captured in 109 in-depth interviews that I conducted throughout the academic year. Complementary data collected through field observations, document analysis, and focus groups allow me to analyze the experiences of students in light of the context, core values, and community norms on each campus.
Across the three schools, I documented a heightened awareness of political issues, increased participation in civic discourse, and extended engagement in marches and sit-ins among first-year students during the 2016-17 academic year. Yet, the goals of these students’ actions often reflected campus-specific trends. Students at Harvey Mudd embodied the school’s mission of ‘citizen-centered’ solutions as they focused on improving the lives of individual classmates. Middlebury students echoed their institution’s vision of community engagement when they acted together to preserve campus values. Harvard students answered the institution’s call for ‘citizen-leaders’ and focused their actions on national issues, mainly eschewing local concerns. Each of these political action orientations is tethered to messages about institutional values that were communicated to incoming students and undergird key aspects of each campus climate. Recognizing how students draw on this ‘hidden curriculum’ to frame their civic actions offers new possibilities for institutions of higher education as they strive to support the next generation of active citizens.
In this paper, I examine the cheating epidemic at a single institution known both for its academically talented students and its focus on elite college admission: Stuyvesant High School in Brooklyn, New York. Using Constructivist Grounded Theory (CGT) (Charmaz, 2006; Charmaz, 2010; Glaser & Strauss, 1967) to analyze student editorials about cheating in the school newspaper, The Stuyvesant Spectator, I evaluated the messages in these texts and found that this achievement-oriented group of students both cheat at high rates and do not express guilt about doing so.
My findings also suggest that the influence of achievement culture on cheating behavior is more complex that previously hypothesized. Contrary to existing expectations, these students do not collaborate simply to boost their own performance. In a system that they define as unfair, rigged, or impossible, they collaborate even when doing so is not guaranteed to yield any personal benefit. Further, students assist their peers when it may actually put them at risk of being caught or at a disadvantage by allowing other students to outperform them.
If students were cheating only to boost their own chances at selective college admission, they would act in a way that is purely self-serving. By contrast, the students at Stuyvesant work together, sometimes only for the benefit of others. Despite the fact that their classmates will ultimately compete against them for the limited number of seats at the country’s most selective colleges and universities, they offer them assistance in homework assignments and on tests. This pattern of behavior, rooted in a sense of rebellion against the overwhelming expectations in an achievement-oriented context, offers a unique vantage point to examine motivation for cheating that has not yet, to my knowledge, been explored in the scholarly literature.
Stuyvesant students may actually view their systemic cheating as a form of active rebellion against their educational system and the people in it: parents, teachers, administrators, and college admissions officers. Instead of expressing remorse over decisions that they personally identify as morally compromised, they describe feeling justified in their decisions to cheat because of the unrealistic expectations set by their families and school environment as they aim for elite college admission.
Keywords: cheating, achievement culture, Stuyvesant High School