Students are too busy to think and academics won't sit still. There may be trouble ahead.

Andrea Sella’s article ‘Penning’s vacuum gauge’ ends with the line ‘thinking takes time and space’, which struck a deep chord. I have been teaching at university for 14 years and in that time I have watched a rapidly changing curriculum combine with endless assessments to produce a stress that must surely be an enemy to the quiet needed to think and develop ideas. Students today are constantly bombarded by the white noise of technology such that the precious resource of solitude is now perceived as a situation to be avoided at all costs. In an attempt to be up-to-date with everything, our students flit from thought to thought and surf from search to search until they forget what their original thought was. I very much fear we are producing a crop of graduates afflicted with what I term ‘academic ADD (attention deficit disorder)’.

Another important point made by Sella’s article was that the loss of the (now laughable) idea of a job for life is a setback to the pursuit of interesting science. One is now expected to move restlessly from place to place, so that one’s resume looks exciting. 

A ‘successful’ roving academic dispenses with the mutual responsibility required between human resources (HR) and staff – that should ensure both are secure and set the academic free to pursue interesting science – and has learnt to play the HR game. The result of the HR concept of ‘redeployment of skills’ is that the academic always has one eye on the door, rather than on interesting science and having ownership in the success of a particular institution. 

This combination of HR deployment policies, the vagrant academic and the ADD student cannot possibly lead to a high percentage of thinking graduates. Admittedly, with so many graduates being pitch-forked into the economy, the probability of finding graduates who can think is increased, but there is huge waste in this system. The ideal purpose of an education is to allow all students the time and space to develop the ‘art of thinking’.

Angeline Kanagasooriam CChem MRSC

University of Kent, UK