STERN: Why the little things matter

A Stern Perspective

“It’s the little details that are vital,” the late, great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said. “Little things make big things happen.”

scott_stern_headshot_peter_tianAt college, little things are constantly on our minds. Should I bring an umbrella? Should I eat that muffin? Should I start that email “Dear Prof. X” or “Hi Prof. X”?

Yalies certainly share other college students’ obsession with the little things. What types of cereal are left in Commons? Is YaleSecure out again? Are people leaving dripping piles of laundry on top of the washing machines? Are people doing other gross things near the washing machines?

It’s enough to make us all feel obsessive. And perhaps it’s harmful. Many have noted the apparent link between minor student complaints and feelings of entitlement. According to psychologist Jean Twenge, college students are 30 percent more narcissistic than they were in 1979. According to Twenge, this rise in narcissism can lead to a sense of entitlement that makes students, frankly, whinier. Over the past year or so, there have been a slew of articles about the phenomenon of “academic entitlement” — a trend wherein students view education as a commodity and thus make bigger stinks about smaller problems. College students spend less time doing homework than they did thirty years ago, but they lodge formal complaints about workload and other minor problems at higher rates.

Whining is annoying. Entitlement is harmful. But complaining about the little things is important.

It is not “entitled” to ask for free printing. It is not entitled to ask for free laundry. It is not entitled to challenge the grade on an assignment or ask for more feedback. College students are whiny, but we aren’t that whiny. Sometimes, our small complaints are justified.

Over the past couple centuries, college has gone from a strictly regimented haven for the wealthy, white elite to a less strictly regimented haven for a slightly less wealthy, slightly less white elite. In the process, the whole concept of students’ rights has sprouted and blossomed. It’s worth remembering that a hundred years ago, professors could literally beat rowdy students. The free speech protests, anti-war protests and civil rights movement changed all this, and it occurred to students that if they were dissatisfied with something — even something small — they could demand a change.

Injustices manifest themselves more subtly than they did decades ago. The costs of food, books, printing, laundry and the like are thus valid objects of complaint. The modern private university is so sharply stratified that these costs may seem inconsequential to many — especially those making administrative decisions — but they can significantly impact the lives of many students. Many colleges across the country — all of which have lower endowments than Yale — offer free printing or free laundry. And, even with Yale’s top-notch financial aid, gaping holes remain. As Alejandro Gutierrez ’13 wrote in these pages last year, in spite of Yale’s financial aid package, he arrived at Yale without sufficient money for plane tickets or textbooks. These complaints are valid.

With so many of our exams and assignments graded by overworked professors or even more overworked graduate students, it is not surprising that many wish to challenge their grades. Yet in many classes the exact mechanism to do so is unclear. These complaints are valid.

Valid complaints — even small ones — are our right as students. And they do not mean we love Yale any less; indeed, if we didn’t complain in the face of small indignities, we would reveal that we are insufficiently engaged with our community.

I, for one, am sick and tired of the characterization of college students as entitled. Concerns that seem small to others loom large to us. Nationally, 80 percent of college students hold jobs. Student debt is one of the most terrifying problems our generation will have to solve. As students — and unlike our counterparts in Europe — we aren’t allowed to unionize or go on strike.

Yale offers us a number of extraordinary benefits — from generous financial aid to access to remarkable resources. Yet we mustn’t forget that this great beneficence comes from great power and wealth. Yale has an endowment greater than the GDP of numerous countries around the world. It has a responsibility to eliminate, far more than it has done, the inequalities and inequities that infect this campus.

When we complain about laundry, printing, books, work-study jobs or grades — or the YCC — we aren’t acting entitled. We are actively demonstrating our loyalty.

Scott Stern is a junior in Branford College. His columns run on Wednesdays. Contact him at scott.stern@yale.edu .

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