A crowd of college students at the 2007 Pittsb...

A crowd of college students at the 2007 Pittsburgh University Commencement. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As late as the early 1960s, the professor had a near absolute authority to discipline a class in whatever way the professor saw fit. Some professors would even slap students who made foolish comments. Very few people would want to return to those days–a university student should not be afraid of a professor. However, student behavior since the early 1960s has worsened in the college and university setting.

The problem began in 1964 with the student revolutions. Beginning with the “Free Speech Movement” at the University of California at Berkeley, which originally allowed anyone, no matter what the person’s ideology, to speak, the student movement degenerated into an orgy of radical leftism. Students took over administration buildings, and in the case of the University of California, the entire campus. It took then Governor Ronald Reagan calling out the California National Guard to restore order. Such protests continued, though with less radical effects, from the 1970s until the present. Today, however, at the classroom level the problem is with students who talk in class out of turn, walk out early if they feel bored with class, use cellphones and other electronic equipment in class, or smart off at the professor in class or in an e-mail. I suppose in some colleges and universities there has been much more serious disrespect than what I have experienced, but even the relatively “minor” problems in my classes point to some fundamental problems in American society.

“Respect” can mean the respect due any human being for being human, respect for a person’s position (for example, respect for the president of the U.S.), or the respect that is earned when someone lives a good moral life or does a job well. All three forms of respect play a role in the classroom.

Students should respect the professor’s position. The professor worked hard to gain degrees in his field and is in a position of authority over students–not arbitrary or overbearing authority, but authority as someone who teaches, guides, and helps maintain decorum in the classroom. Too many students think they know more than the professor, even in the professor’s own field of study. This is highly unlikely to be the case and is most often evidence of a student’s immaturity. Pampered, spoiled students whose parents have protected them from the harsh realities of life tend to remain at the developmental level befitting someone younger than they. They still hold on to the attitude that they know everything and that older people are ignorant fogies who accept only outmoded ideas. Some students will mature out of this immaturity (especially women), but many do not. I can have a sense of humor about that form of disrespect in class, but if students do not grow out of such arrogance, it will harm them in the future. Other students rebel against any authority figure, no matter how benign. Their misbehavior is not as much personal as it is about a hatred of authority in general.

Students lack respect for human beings qua human beings when they talk in class about non-class related subjects when the teacher is giving a lecture. They are also disrespecting other class members and exhibiting a “me, me, me” attitude that damages the American social framework more than any other attitude. It has become practically difficult to discipline students for such behavior, especially for large classes. Except for test days, I do not fight over phones–if students do not listen in class, they will not do well on exams, and that will be their punishment.  It is the “I don’t care; I’ll do what I want” attitude that so exacerbates me and other professors. Of course if students talk out loud in class about last night’s ball game or about other topics having nothing to do with the lesson for the day they reveal their disrespect for not only the professor, but also for their fellow students. One of the worst behaviors I have seen is when a student walks out of school due to being bored or due to disagreement with the professor. This behavior shows disrespect for both the professor and for the educational process in general.

Then there is the respect that a professor earns for doing a conscientious and thorough job in teaching, who carefully integrates research and teaching, and who helps students to excel. Despite the fact that a conscientious professor does a good job, bad apples in the class who disrespect the professor’s work (usually out of sheer spite) can make trouble for the class and encourage otherwise good teachers to receive poor evaluations by stirring up trouble in the class. Such agitators are dangerous, and if the professor detects their handiwork, the professor can take steps to confront and discipline them.

Being a college or university professor is a tougher job than in the past–the behavior of high school students in the 1970s has become mainstream behavior on college and university campuses). I fear what the future holds for college and university professors without a restoration of the traditional family, parental discipline, and a commitment from college and university staff to affirm the importance of classroom discipline.