What the 'Three Little Pigs' say about millennials

While lecturing to my 100-student freshman class last year and assuming that many of them would wait until the night before to write their first paper, I got the bright idea of asking them if they understood the lesson of the "Three Little Pigs."

As a six- year-old, I was scared — if not traumatized — by the thought of being eaten by a wolf if I didn't work hard and smart. The fear still remains six decades later for me. Every time I think of cutting corners, I fear suffering the fate of the two lazy and stupid pigs.

The students' reactions shocked me. The first surprise was that half of the class had not even heard of the story. The bigger shock came when I decided to tell the story to the other half. I started to explain that the first two pigs built their houses out of grass and sticks, respectively, because it was quick and easy. The wolf blew down their houses and ate them. The third pig built the house out of brick and not only survived the wolf's powerful breath, but tricked the wolf into coming down the chimney and falling in a pot of boiling water, after which the hardworking pig ate the wolf.

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Three little pigs
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Halfway through the story, several students interrupted to tell me that I told the story wrong. They said that the first two pigs escaped and ran to the house of the third pig and lived happily ever after. The wolf just moved on as if the frustration was enough of a punishment. (There was also a feminist twist to the story because the two lazy pigs were boys, and the smart one was their sister.)

I did some research on the "Three Little Pigs." Apparently, there was a very successful Disney version in the 1930s which started the process of destroying the moral of the story I received when I was a child. Subsequently, all kinds of creative things were done to the story to make it longer and more enticing.

The most disagreeable consequence of this revision of the story was that cleverness, not hard work, is the key to success. Apparently, the people who have rewritten The Little Pigs have forgotten Thomas Edison's dictum, "Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Or can we just attribute the revision to Hollywood and the artistic preference for creativity over the mundane?

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Disagreeable as it is to me as a college professor who would like his students to not just be cerebral but also to work hard, this experience helps explain why our teenagers and young adults prefer instant gratification instead of hard work. It suggests why college students spend less than ten hours a week on school work outside of class, why 60 percent of recent college graduates live at home with their parents and why employers complain about the work ethic and willingness of new hires to pay their dues. It may also explain why many corporations are hiring young engineers in the search for budding "Thomas Edisons" from Asia and not the United States.

In his book, "Ready or Not, Here Life Comes," Dr. Mel Levin argues that young adults learn during their childhood to be dependent on their parents instead of taking individual responsibility. And too many of them have built their financial houses out of plastic, underwritten by their parent's good credit.

The interesting question about the corruption of the "Three Little Pigs" story is whether it is merely a reflection of the decline of student work ethic or one of the many causes of that decline. Regardless, too many students today build their "houses of knowledge" out of TV coverage, Google and Wikipedia, consulted just before their papers are due, which deprives them of the skills and character necessary to succeed in their careers and life. Those that focus and build carefully will have a decided edge, and the feminist twist appears to have been prophetic or perhaps causal as college graduation rates between females and males are approaching 60-40.

Commentary by Bill Coplin,a professor of public policy at the Maxwell School and The College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University. He is also the author of, "Ten Things Employers Want You to Learn in College." Follow him on Twitter @ProfCoplin.

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