The Fail-Proof Student

Janice Fiamengo

A few months ago, I came across a newspaper piece titled “Helping Talent Rise to the Top,” an unsigned promotional item in Canada’s Globe and Mail about new measures to enhance student well-being at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.1 These measures are presented in a fifty-plus-page document, Student Mental Health and Wellness, prepared by the Principal’s Commission on Mental Health, and now available online.2 Declaring that universities are no longer about “survival of the fittest” and are committed to “look[ing] out for their students’ mental health in an entirely new way,” the Globe piece lauds Queen’s, a top-ranked Canadian undergraduate school, for its willingness to “foster talent, not sink it.” Implying that the whole of the past was a cruel Gradgrindian slog from which we are only now emerging, the article ends by identifying the measures at Queen’s as part of a long overdue and culture-wide transformation “in how society views mental health and the need to support one another.”3

Who could argue with such fine sentiments? Perhaps only those of us who believe, if not in such crude terms, that it is not the business of universities to “look out for their students’ mental health,” that the college experience should be about “survival of the [intellectually] fittest,” and that measures designed to accommodate student difficulties may weaken rather than cultivate ability and resilience. They undoubtedly weaken the university’s academic focus. My main concern with the Queen’s report is that it never distinguishes mental illness from ordinary stress—indeed, that it refuses any such distinction—and thus creates a climate in which students are encouraged to blur the distinction themselves.

Exaggerating the emotional toll of university requirements, the report neglects to note the positive effects of stress in building mental toughness or the unintended consequences—including temptations to delay and weakened commitment—of attempting to remove it. Moreover, the repeated use of the phrase “true ability” throughout the report supports the myth that poor performance can usually be traced to institutional or social rather than personal inadequacies. Even if the report’s recommendations are not fully implemented, their unrealistic emphasis on “the well-being and success of every [student]” (4) is in danger of encouraging not excellence but a vicious cycle of false expectations and excuse-making.

Queen’s University is not, of course, the first university to install a therapeutic regime—indeed, the idea of linking mental disorder to over-study can be traced to nineteenth-century educational reformers such as Edward Jarvis and Horace Mann4—and no observer with experience of our academic culture will be particularly surprised by the report’s claims and findings. Many critics of higher education have lamented the falling away of rigor in the name of inclusion, with Christopher Lasch worrying as far back as 1979 about “the growing belief that education should be painless, free of tension and conflict”5 and Mark Steyn noting more recently how “levels of self-esteem” among university students have grown “ever more detached from more earthbound measures of achievement.”6

Feeling good about oneself has become a primary goal of academic endeavor rather than its happy result—an outcome of the egalitarian mandate. The unstated context for the Queen’s report is the crisis in Canadian higher education that stems in part from the determination of universities and colleges—with government incentive—to expand their ranks continually. Whereas in the past only a small, elite group of high school graduates was able to attend university, now a significant number do, many of them woefully ill-prepared for the work.7 Part of the sorry truth behind the discourse on “disability” is that many students simply lack the intellectual capacity to do what is being asked of them.

In the past decade, the therapeutic imperative has been firmly enshrined in North American law, guaranteeing not, as the report suggests, that people can at last be honest about mental illness, but that it is now extremely difficult for teachers and other professionals to be honest about the limits of student ability. Ontario, for example, has human rights legislation, enshrined in the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (2005), that prohibits exclusion from educational services on the grounds of mental disabilities such as learning dysfunction or mood disorder. The Human Rights Code stipulates that disability should be interpreted “broadly,” that “discrimination” includes “constructive discrimination” (requirements that “appear neutral” but have the effect of exclusion), and that universities have a “duty to accommodate” disability as long as the accommodation does not involve “undue hardship” for the institution.8 Such broad legislation has had and will continue to have far-reaching impacts on universities. Student Mental Health and Wellness is worth analyzing, then, not because it reveals something particular about Queen’s University, but because it provides a case study of current trends in progressivist thinking on education and suggests their deleterious consequences for the merit-based ideal.

The Queen’s committee released its report in November 2012 after a year-long study and consultation following “a number of tragic student deaths” by suicide (4). Details about the suicides are (appropriately) withheld, but their key mention at the report’s beginning reveals an assumed link between university life and student suicide for which the university community is presumed to bear moral responsibility. Despite the fact that the suicide rate among young people of university age is low and has not increased, as the committee mentions later, the report is everywhere informed by the purported duty of the university “to be a proactive and responsive community” that supports the health of “every undergraduate, graduate, and professional student from the day they arrive on campus through to graduation” (4)—a lofty aim that in any but our present age would be perceived as well outside the purview of a center of higher learning.

Given the university’s public breast-beating about student distress, it is not surprising that the report identifies mental illness as a major concern, citing a 2009 survey in which 53 percent of students at six Ontario universities declared themselves “overwhelmed by anxiety” (8)—whatever such a self-assessment might mean. (I was surprised the percentage wasn’t higher: ask me on nearly any day of the year, and I’ll rate my anxiety level off the charts, too.) Various scholars and agencies whose business it is to study and treat mental illness confirm—again, no surprise—that their services are urgently needed and that student demand for counseling and other supports is on a dramatic upswing. The link between mental illness and “stress” is apparent from the report’s opening statements, as, for example, when the committee announces that a significant proportion of students “find themselves challenged by stress, distress and illness to a degree that impairs their optimal personal and academic development and achievement” (11). Such unfortunate phrasing seems to place mental illness in the same category as poor study habits or exam panic.

The conviction that students are “overwhelmed” by school-related stress is an article of faith throughout the report despite surveys of American universities, such as one cited recently by the Economist, that show students reading and studying far less than in the past: “Almost a third of students do not take any courses that involve more than 40 pages of reading over an entire term” while spending “measurably less time studying and more on recreation” than they did a few decades ago.9 Researchers Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks have found that time spent studying by full-time university students has fallen from twenty-four hours per week in 1961 to only fourteen hours per week today, a statistic applying to “all demographic sub-groups” and at “four-year colleges of every type, degree structure, and level of selectivity” in the United States.10

The situation among Canadian students is almost certainly comparable at a time when requirements are being lowered to align with students’ busy off-campus lives and disinclination for sustained reading. If Ontario students are, as 36 percent of them report, “so depressed” that they find it “difficult to function” (8), it is unlikely that an excessively rigorous academic environment is to blame—perhaps the opposite. Nonetheless, the authors of Student Mental Health and Wellness propose a plethora of initiatives and strategies to create a healthier “work-life balance” on campus (6). Strategies range from the anodyne—people should be kind to one another, the university should affirm a commitment to health at the highest levels (13)—to the ridiculous—departments should ensure, when planning curricula, that “students have time to participate in other activities, and to engage in a holistically healthy lifestyle” (6). It is nowhere acknowledged how little students are actually asked to accomplish in their courses.

More than half of the report’s recommendations focus on creating and extending existing mental health services—campus counseling, crisis management, referral, academic advising, life skills workshops, a network of mentors, help desks, faith-based supports, advising, and so on—to ensure that a large cadre of experts offers an even greater range of services than are in place at present. It is difficult for the non-health expert to comment on such extra-academic resources except to note their self-perpetuating nature. Where experts are funded by government monies to address a social problem, it is all but guaranteed that the problem will remain pressing—with dramatic statistics to prove it so. At my own university, the University of Ottawa, the Student Academic Success Service (SASS) employs a bevy of counselors, advisors, mentors, Aboriginal elders, therapists, and tutors to assist students in dealing with life crises and academic challenges, aiming for “a barrier-free academic environment”11 and “protection” against “discrimination” and “harassment.”12

“Access Service,” the SASS department devoted to helping students with disabilities, promises sweepingly: “Whatever your learning difficulties, Access Service specialists will work with you to achieve your academic goals.”13 Disabilities slated for special accommodation cover a wide spectrum, including hyperactivity, allergies, migraine headaches, and irritable bowel syndrome as well as many psychological and psychiatric conditions. In his “Message from the [SASS] Director,” Murray Sang announces, “Last year over 12,000 students took advantage of one of our many free [counseling and support] services14—a remarkably high number for a university with just over 40,000 enrolled. It stands to reason that such service providers have a vested interest in accommodating their clients, and it is difficult to imagine them ever downplaying a student’s report of stress or suggesting he not seek counseling and extra assistance. Such professionals exist to affirm that university life is traumatic.

Most germane to the matter of academic standards and integrity are the report’s recommendations for academic accommodation that aim not only at making special arrangements for students in crisis but also, it seems, at preventing students from experiencing any stress or discomfort whatsoever, and it is here that the report’s recommendations tip into the truly bizarre. Courses and exams are, the report advises, to be more considerately scheduled to allow for more “breathing space” for students (16). The intensive buildup of course content and assignments both at the beginning and the end of a semester should be avoided so that students will not feel anxious when a number of assignments come due at the same time (17). And final exams worth 100 percent of the course grade “can be a significant source of stress” (17).

In cases of “significant” stress, the deferral of tests, exams, and assignments is now mandated under the aforementioned provincial disability guidelines (14): any student who registers with a learning disability or is able to produce a note from a medical professional (often on the order of “I have met with student X who reports…”) cannot be refused a deferral. Accommodation is even, the report suggests, to extend to bad grades, or at least to those grades that do not “reflect [the student’s] true academic ability” due to what the report terms a “false academic start”—the result of the student being “unprepared or unable to manage the intensity of the first term or first year of academic work” (15). Such “false start” grades should be struck from students’ transcripts, especially if the mark(s), in the words of the report’s authors, “could have a long-term impact on their transcript and their confidence” (15). With these words, the self-esteem imperative of the modern university goes into overdrive.

What will Queen’s University look like if the recommendations are adopted? Some are clearly impractical, others excessively intrusive and misguided. How are instructors to be prevented from “loading” assignments onto students near the end of the course? Short of outlawing deadlines—and this is not inconceivable—it is difficult to imagine how any university administration could alleviate situations in which students find themselves facing overlapping deadlines or a pileup of assignments. (Might students not practice time management in order to complete assignments ahead of schedule to avoid stressful overlap? And for the stress-inclined student, might it not be just as stressful to encounter deadlines spread throughout the course as to have them clustered toward the end?) Other recommendations, especially those pertaining to exam deferral, have already been implemented and will almost certainly expand over the coming years, with some alarming implications. As the report notes, exam accommodations have already increased by an astounding 243 percent since December 1998 and by 25 percent alone since December 2007 (14).

The new dispensation sees exams and final assignment requirements regularly taken out of instructors’ hands in a system that has created a new category of student who completes courses on a timetable quite separate from that set by the instructor, with extensions frequently offered, at my university, for up to one year. An entire secondary administrative network to coordinate and structure deferred exams and assignments—arranging for new versions of the exams, communicating with students about dates and times, finding rooms and monitors for testing—has been put in place to make possible this university-wide system of accommodation. Aside from the notable expense and complexities—and the possibilities for timetabling mistakes and system breakdowns, causing further anxiety for the already-anxious student—all of these arrangements raise basic questions about the role of stress in university life and its relation to the main academic goal of producing capable and knowledgeable citizens.

One assumption behind these new initiatives is that academic ability—“true academic ability” as the report insists on calling it (15)—can only rightly be measured by an optimal performance unhampered by distracting life circumstances. The Queen’s committee seems to assume that any performance marred by additional burdens is a faulty indicator of true ability. Of course, there is a grain of truth in this proposition, just as there is a grain of truth in many falsehoods and misconceptions. Most people will not perform at their best during a major life trauma, whether it be the death of a family member, extreme overwork, or emotional distress. But it is also true that ability is simply the ability to achieve results and complete tasks under duress. An ability that cannot withstand life trauma is not much of an ability, and of little good in a world where bad things happen and sources of stress frequently compound one another. The capacity to concentrate, to remember, to formulate clear arguments, to analyze, to write coherent sentences, to answer questions logically, to persevere with a task—all of these are real only if they are strong enough to function under mental and emotional duress. There is no pure ability set apart from the conditions of life and measurable in isolation from them, and college should rightly test performance under stress and explain the importance of doing so: it is the only measurable performance on which we can rely.

Moreover, the officials who support the initiatives outlined in Student Mental Health and Wellness fail to recognize the unintended consequences of their policies: that their approach of offering a vast and multi-tentacled framework of accommodations is as likely to exacerbate as alleviate stress and stigma. There is something helpful—both salutary and relieving—in accepting a failure one cannot avoid. One learns that life does not end with a failed course or even a failed year: one moves on, retakes the course, learns from the failure, and goes about cleaning up one’s mess and starting over. The strength of character necessary to do so can, arguably, only be learned from failure—not from deferral, accommodation, or fine words about combatting stigma.

The truth is that except perhaps in a student far gone down the therapeutic path, the sense of failure tends to remain, no matter how the situation is smoothed over with official forms, bureaucratic procedures, and medicalized discourse. The person so accommodated, not unlike the recipient of affirmative action measures, often knows in his gut that he has been inadequate to a task, and that harm is compounded in being asked to collude with the university in pretending otherwise, with the added embarrassment and dread of the deferred exam lingering on the horizon. I don’t know whether statistics are kept on how many students actually sit their deferred exams or complete their deferred assignments, but I would be willing to bet—if my own experience with students is representative—that the numbers are not good. There seems to be something in human nature that makes it more difficult to complete a deferred task than to meet an original deadline, no matter the circumstances. The problem of remembering and re-engaging with course material covered many months earlier also militates against students’ chances of completion. Thus, although appearing to hold out the possibility of success, deferrals may actually foster further opportunity to perform poorly.

The anonymous author of the Globe and Mail piece claims that it is good for young people to “take risks” and proposes that “[i]f we truly want (as we say we do) students to take risks and not to fear failure, it makes sense not to punish failures severely.”15 In other words, risk-taking is best encouraged when risk is minimized, when failing grades can be “erased” to enable students to disavow a bad term, as if it were little more than an unfortunate choice in hairstyle. But risk-taking without consequence is simply self-indulgence, with none of the wholesome cautions and rewards of a real challenge. To claim that there is no shame in honest failure while seeking to remove all possibility of such failure is actually to acknowledge that failing is something we don’t expect our young people to overcome; moreover, it is to all but guarantee young people’s inability to cope with it in life after university, where risk-takers do live with consequences and most people attempting worthy things fail more than once.

Student Mental Health and Wellness has nothing to say about those students who are able and willing to meet university requirements without special accommodations, but the effect on their attitudes and performance is not negligible. Simply put, the determination to reduce stigma and to make deferrals easier to acquire puts psychological obstacles in the way of good students and implicitly discourages them from the path of determination and grit. Who would choose the hard way of working through a personal difficulty or writing three papers back-to-back when penalty-free deferrals and second chances are only a counseling visit away? Not very many. And this is to say nothing about the impact in the classroom of students unable to attend class regularly, complete readings and assignments, participate in discussion and group activities, or otherwise apply themselves wholeheartedly to their course work.

Universities should by all means be places where students are given the information, training, and legitimate support conducive to success: counseling services where needed and kindness in abundance, but especially good and inspiring teaching, adequate scholarships, and a scholastic environment that rewards honesty, intellectual curiosity, academic commitment, high-quality writing, and hard work. Only a system that rewards excellence, affirms the consequences of failure, and clearly distinguishes between the two will be a system that brings out the best in our students. We should hold them to the highest standard possible as we prepare them to encounter the world outside academia.

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