Students’ behavior at the Howard Gardner lecture last Thursday evening prompted a debate about proper decorum that shouldn’t be necessary on a campus like ours, where maturity is an unstated expectation. The event, however, does raise important questions about the Transition to College course and student engagement at the University.

The fact that first-year students were required to attend the lecture as part of their Transition to College course does not excuse disrespectful or rude behavior. Texting, sleeping and chatting during the presentation reflects poorly on the University as a whole and is a juvenile way of expressing displeasure. Having scholars visit our campus and sharing their ideas is a privilege that we liberal arts students should relish.

As college students, we should be held responsible for our actions, and we should promote change through alternative means, such as well-reasoned argument.

Of course, students are not the only ones at fault. Many students were not engaged in the lecture, perhaps because of the book selection for the first-years’ common reading. Some students believe Gardner’s book, “Five Minds for the Future,” was too light and fluffy, politically correct and even arrogant. Much of the class of 2014 agreed that they hated the book before they even arrived on campus. Still others said Gardner was dismissive of questions and did not handle criticism well. In the future, a book should be chosen that engages students and stimulates intellectual debates.

The Transition to College course itself could also be at fault. Many first-year students do not take this pass-fail course seriously, and this disdainful attitude could have carried over to the lecture. The course, we believe, is valuable to the first-years’ development and adjustment to college life; however, it needs to be presented in a way that will be taken seriously. Perhaps the course could be administered online over the summer, or the information could be conveyed through foundation seminars or interaction with resident assistants. Still, acting out during the speaker’s presentation is a poorly executed way of expressing dissatisfaction with the course.

More generally, we fear the students’ behavior is indicative of a decline in student engagement. In many classes, especially large lectures, students spend their time texting or surfing sites unrelated to classwork. We question whether this is a matter of teaching students how to behave in a college environment, or if it simply speaks to a growing trend of disrespect and apathy in an increasingly mobile and networked age.

Regardless of the causes of students’ poor decorum in presentation spaces and in the classroom, we strongly urge University students to think deeply about why they are in college and about how they comport themselves. If they are here to truly learn and broaden their minds, we hope they will show it by putting down their mobile devices, staying awake during lectures, paying attention in class and acting like mature and engaged college students.

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