Why Are Some College Students So Lazy?

Maybe it’s an evolution thing. (Of course, everything is an evolution thing.) But what I mean is: all life forms are taking gambles in each moment as to how they’ll expend their energy or conserve it. On the continuum of evolutionary strategies surrounding the value of, say, a college writing class to one’s future and reproductive success, some will put forward a high-energy gambit, others a low one, and still others will fall somewhere in the middle. How much energy is put into an essay is the measure of one’s evolutionary strategy as deployed at a very particular stage of one’s life, and in a very particular context (environment).

Some have guessed they can skate and still get the grade they want, while others might obsess about their essays in ways that are actually counterproductive to their own life development. (They decline a date on a Saturday night to hole-up with a paper that turns out to be shit even after an excess of fretful editing, etc.)

My point is that every human being on the planet is an enormous lottery winner in the evolutionary game, and is now putting forth his or her own gamble toward the future. An individual’s temperamental set-points for laziness and attention-to-detail are there for a reason: they’ve been highly adaptive in the past, either for themselves or for ancestors they inherited them from. As Dawkins famously notes, each individual is the product of a long line of ancestors going back billions of years, and not a single one of them died before producing at least one viable offspring. It’s a stunning string of successes that lead to each one of us. And the college students sitting in our classes have reached reproductive age without yet getting their Darwin Awards (elimination from the gene pool).

What thus looks like a bad sort of laziness brought to this or that college class may in fact be the right sort and level of laziness for the contingent situations our very particular students find themselves in. Each of them are navigating contending demands on their time. Laziness in a class, for instance, may function as a signal to them, by the end of the semester, that they don’t really want to be in college after all, or be an English major, etc.

And where they in fact put their energy, and display no laziness at all, may indeed prove quite successful for them.

I’m not making excuses for college students, just noting how tricky it is to determine what others, in their contingent life experiences, ought to be doing with their time (as if we know). A professor friend of mine who once taught with me at AVC used to say, “Everyone has their journey.”

For perspective, here’s a clip of John Walton fretting over what to do with his time, and wondering what his dad would have told him.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Why Are Some College Students So Lazy?

  1. Indeed, I see apathy and laziness among students as a symptom of a misplaced sense of cultural privilege. In the modern world of instant googling of information, the humanities may be perceived as an anachronistic pursuit by many unwilling students whose predestined career has become a mental cliche in their imaginations. Why spend the time and effort in laboring over arguments that inevitably lead to no tangible outcome except to titillate the fancies of those elusory professors? Examinations have become exercises in memory recall and essays are an inconvenience to expend as little as energy as possible. The true test for many students, whose apathy has been emblazoned in their social attitudes, is to get through the formalities and get on with it in the real world of unguarded moments, unmapped horizons and undiscovered possibilities. College has become another automated ritual, in much the same way as brushing your teeth or saying grace before dinner.

  2. Staffan says:

    There is also the higher-ed bubble. More people than ever are nudged into higher education, which means more students with no drive or talent. I read somewhere that graduates today have 89% of the vocabulary of graduates in the 1960s. This dumbing down is no doubt a result of this process, or racket, to put it bluntly.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that large minorities of women in Northwest European populations (around 10% if I remember correctly) do not have any children. That’s been going on for centuries. That minority has only a small portion of inclusive fitness and have much lower costs than the rest. For whatever reason, they’re not taking part in Darwin’s existential olympics. They can be as lazy as they want to be. And it’s even worse in clannish populations where your career depends mostly on family connections. For them, it just hasn’t payed off to make an effort. The only people who have been selected to compete with their diligence are East Asians. (Given your location and profession, you’ve probably already noticed this.)

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hi Staffan,

      Hope you are well. As to your comment, I think fertility rates are coming down globally, so, to my mind, the proper area of attention in this context is technological and cultural evolution, not biological evolution. When you look out a hundred years from now, the changes to society between now and then will be driven by culture and technology, not biological evolution. Our evolution is already baked into the cake. What humanity is, it is. And, if it changes substantially between now and a thousand years from now, it will be determined, not by differential procreation among separated populations, but by genetic engineering. The genetic code has been hacked. Did you miss that news?

      So, a century from now, what it will mean to bring quantum computing to bear on hacking the genome; and for 90% of all humans on the planet to live in high tech cities powered by energy from the sun and wind; and to have robots doing perhaps 95% or more of the labor, is anyone’s guess.

      Ultimately, the evolution of super-intelligent machines that will surpass average human intelligence is the great question of the 22nd century–not the comparative intelligence of human subgroups. For all you know, those single professional women you mention are not outliers, but the future; a cultural avant garde, anticipating the most common way of being in the 22nd century.

  3. Staffan says:

    Thanks, you too.

    What happens in the future is hard to tell, but if we want to understand people around us, our evolutionary past remains one of the strongest clues. Also, culture and technology doesn’t necessarily replace evolution. There is good evidence that evolution has accelerated in the last 10K years or so, a time during which culture & tech increasingly affected our fitness – farmers have more children than hunter-gatherers. So it hasn’t replaced evolution, it has intensified it.

    There is no reason to assume that would change in the future. Whatever we do with our technology will depend on us, on our nature. We won’t be shaped by selection anymore, but we will change ourselves according to our nature which means group differences will persist, even increase as we take off on our own trajectories. But this will no doubt lead to some bad decisions as well because people often don’t understand their nature.

    As for Northwest Euros, I really think of them as an avant garde. After all, it’s the people of Enlightenment. Whether it’s the comfort of tech or human rights, most things that makes our lives worth living has been created by people with this ancestry. But at this point in history, they are not only reluctant to reproduce, but replacing their own populations with immigrants who have done nothing or next to nothing to make our lives worth living. (Somewhat simplified of course since there are Africans, Chinese etc who think and act in a similar way, but they’re outnumbered and have little influence over their societies. South Korea might be an entire nation that will develop a similar way of thought, but that’s about it.)

    So for a universalist like you, the future is onwards and upwards because all of humanity has increasingly powerful knowledge, because we’re all the same, or if not technology will make us all the same. But for me it’s potential disaster as the universalist Northwest Euros are replacing themselves with non-universalists, who don’t reflect much on the common good of mankind. A clannish person will hardly use new reproductive technology to make his children into soft-hearted universalists, people he doesn’t respect. So the process will shut itself down. You can see this in the Arab countries, the most clannish people in the world. They have access to all our knowledge and they do nothing at all with it. Their economies are the size of Finland’s if you don’t count oil revenues.

    Note that intelligence is only part of this. East Asian are smarter but they haven’t made that much progress in areas like human rights (again, I’m optimistic about Koreans though). The more important difference is the transition to weaker families, and more relations in society instead (which surprisingly St Augustine seems to have been aware of). This process is what led to universalism, and all the good stuff that comes from it. But that’s a way of thinking that doesn’t exist in other populations. That’s the catch 22 here: Norhtwest Euro universalists are unique, but their universalism makes them believe the opposite. For all their intellectual fireworks this seems like a fatal flaw.

    Short version of this comment: Shut up and make more babies : )

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