The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"It is impossible to imagine Goethe or Beethoven being good at billiards or golf.."...  ...H.L. Mencken.

Commentary of the Day - August 6, 2008: So What if College Gamers' GPAs Suffer!  Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

A recent article in the Berkeley Electronic Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy caught my attention, not because I am a regular reader of its postings  (my field, after all, is American literature) but because a former colleague thought I'd find it interesting.  I did, and not because I could follow every twist and turn of the argument.  As is often the case with academic "studies," its authors, Ralph  and Todd Stinebrickner were out to prove the duh -- obvious -- namely, that first-year students who have roommates with video game equipment tend to become gamers themselves -- and to rack up lower GPAs than those with roommates sans video game capacities.

The test group attended Berea College but the authors of the study claim that "while it is always difficult to know exactly how the results from a particular school would generalize to larger populations, there is no obvious reason to believe that we should expect substantially different results elsewhere."  As Berea goes, so goes our nation’s colleges and universities. How, then, could I not be interested?

At Berea, those students whose (randomly selected) roommates had video games earned significantly lower first-semester GPAs: for males, 2.74 vs. 2.98; for females, 3.03 vs. 3.16.  Students with a roommate who brought a video game to college report playing video games 4.06 hours per week; students with roommates who did not bring a video game report spending 0.79 hours per week.  The first group spent 2.9 hours a day studying; the second group reports spending 3.6 hours a day studying.

I’ll leave it to my colleagues in economics to judge how worthy the Stinebrickners study was.  Surely other factors -- e.g., classroom attendance, study conditions (noisy vs. quiet) and academic aptitude -- must have been involved.   What concerns me I most, however, is the final sentence of the e-mail passed along to me: "I wonder if a similar situation exists here at Franklin & Marshall and what, if anything, we could or should do about it?"

I’ll take the Stinebrickners at their word -- a similar situation probably exists at my former college, and at many others.  A great many high school gamers become college gamers -- especially if the equipment is readily available and they are in their first semester.  The note of alarm, or "of concern" my former colleague expresses reminds me of the trombone salesman who pointed out to the good people of River City that trouble begins with the letter T which just so happens to rhyme with  the letter P -- and that, as fans of "The Music Man" know, stands for (gulp) pool.

It's always something.  If it's not pool it's Pong, the video harbinger of "Grand Auto Theft" and a handful of whiz-bang cousins.  Indeed, the list of things that fall into the camp of "play" is longer, much longer, than the stale, dry as dust items in the "work" column.  And this is doubly true for many first-year students who have not yet discovered that work and play are not as far apart as they imagine.

What could, or should, colleges do to keep play-stations and other gaming equipment out of their students' hands?  My answer: Nothing!   Choice is an absolutely essential item of college life, and while I would argue that drug dealers have no place in college housing (the laws of the land make the same point), I think that legal diversions -- from game consoles to TV sets, to FM radios to I-pods, to college sports (varsity as well as intramural), to old-fashioned (or new-fashioned) dating is not part of a college's official business.  Granted, college advisors can offer sound advice about study habits; they might even cite the finding of the Stinebrickners' study but there's nothing like a lousy first-semester GPA to pound home the truth about time spent on the game screen vs. time spent cracking books.

Students need to have the chance to learn from their mistakes.  What they don’t need is to have every possible temptation officially banished.  Here I stand with the John Milton who liked not a "cloistered virtue."  In the same way that colleges and universities ought to be places where all ideas deserve a hearing (if not our agreement), all manner of entertainment can be available to those who need a well-deserved study break.  And what about those who are longer on "breaks" than they are on work?  Well, too bad for them -- and, alas, too bad also for their tuition-paying parents.

A final word about gamers and the average professor: Trying to compete with the high-tech video game graphics is a mug's game.  You can't win, in the same way that professors who once spiced up their lectures with efforts to ape Johnny Carson's opening monologue couldn't win.  If he or she could, that person would have a TV show rather than a classroom.  Besides, no misrepresentations are necessary.  The beauty of a Keats poem or a quadratic equation is its own excuse for being -- and that is also what the beauty  of a real education is: the ability to recognize what has genuine substance and to know when somebody is speaking rot.

Video games fall into the category of what novelist Saul Bellow once called "distractions."  Contemporary life is filled with them; indeed, the point about making one's way, successfully, through college is to learn how to budget time, which is also to say, how to deal with life's many distractions.  No college rules or administrative legislation could, or should, spare our students from the pain of learning for themselves what it means to leave childish things and to become functioning adults.  Granted, this is not an easy lesson but it's one best learned in the privacy of a dormitory room when the TV console is turned off and the reading lamp is turned on.

2008, Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days.

The Irascible Professor comments: Sanford's argument makes good sense.  Students have to learn for themselves the value of serious study.  In the IP's day touch football and billiards were serious diversions from study, though both seemed to offer more in the way of social interaction than today's solitary gaming.  And, that social interaction had some salutary effects on the GPA.  As a Berkeley physics undergrad, the IP learned a lot more physics by asking the right questions during billiards games with a few knowledgeable physics grad students than he learned from certain members of the esteemed physics faculty.


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© 2008 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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