Recently, I attended a workshop given by a man who had obtained his PhD in the early 1990s. When he was a student he was the only person that to finish the entire programme and graduate, not only from his admission year but also from several groups on either side of him. The explanation was that the technological difficulty of doing research, assembling, organizing, and then publishing information was such that people began dropping out almost from the moment they arrived at the university. Under these circumstances it was in vain that counsellors, professors, parents, etc. tried to explain that the long-term cost of dropping out outweighed alleviation of frustration, discouragement, or any other natural problem associated with the circumstances.
The man’s message was that the modern student has nothing to complain about once one factors the plethora of technological resources available to him which assist in accomplishing his task. The main was absolutely right, but one thing became apparent during the workshop: technology has helped fuel a generational achievement divide, one which is painful for people who perceive themselves to be on the wrong side of the demarcation. On my own computer I have all types of applications which help with every aspect of research and writing - word processing apps, bibliographic collation and annotation apps, presentation tools, music notation and editing apps, the list is endless.
To further enhance the situation - or to emphasize the unfairness of it, depending on perspective - the market has placed a wide range of choices at the fingertips of the modern student. Need a word processor? There is a range from the free (but fiddly) open-source Scribus on the lower end of the spectrum, to the professional and also free LibreOffice and Google Docs, the latter of which also features automatic cloud storage and voice typing, to Microsoft Word and Scrivener, the last of which will allow one to work simultaneously on an academic paper, novel, and a film script should one feel so inclined. Instead of relying on a grouchy undergraduate tasked with keeping a current bibliography on index cards, the young up-and-coming academic has at least three choices (Zotero [free], Mendeley, and EndNote) with regard to referencing apps, according to range of features and capabilities desired. These examples are merely a sampling of the scale and range of basic tools, not including video editing software or applications for more specialized tasks, available today. Once one factors the increased ease of centralized databases, e.g. JSTOR or ProQuest, and email or RSS alerts when a topically relevant article is published, one must agree that technology has facilitated research immeasurably.
The reason these resources are important is that they serve as examples of how an increase in one factor enables an increase in another. Fundamentally, the requirements and their difficulty for completion of a doctoral program have not decreased since the early 1990s. Instead the ease of meeting them has increased. While this circumstance might serve as a perfect example of the “a rising tide lifts all boats” principle on a positive side, the advancement in technology is also representative of how rising tides can make certain demographic segments unhappy. Today, those who dropped out of their degree programs in the early 1990s have exactly the same access to computerized aides as both current students and any colleagues who successfully finished; what non-finishers don’t have is their doctorate.
On the one hand, the academic model has limited applications because, in all probability, leaving without completing didn’t have a significant impact on the dropouts lives and careers. After all, it was not too long ago, at least in the Anglophone sphere, that mere attendance at the undergraduate level was sufficient to serve as a ticket into the professional world (think Brideshead Revisited), and even today there is not an appreciable difference between those who graduated and those who simply attended in terms of the opportunities available to the second and third generations.
On the other hand, the pain of achievement gaps can be as much about perceived dignity and standing, as material disadvantage, which makes it real for those who suffer from it. This is not to say that there have not necessarily been material differences; a Pew Research article, published in mid-February 2019, showed that young millennials, the first generation to benefit dramatically from new technological tools and who would have started at the undergraduate level between 2006 and 2012, after spending (almost) the first decade of their potential professional lives in school - primarily due to the 2008 recession - are surpassing previous generations in terms of material metrics, e.g. income, net worth, careers, etc. Although there is no concrete mathematical evidence that this demographic prosperity is directly caused by increased achievement, that is how it is perceived at the societal level.
Yes, rationally it is more probable that the millennials’ dramatic increase in wealth and career prospects, like their advanced academic degrees, is more due to overall developments in facilitating technology of which they, by sheer fluke of fate, are the first beneficiaries. But instinctively, it is easier to attribute the disparity to achievements and the opportunities supposedly attached to achievement. Consequently in popular dialogue, the achievement gap is equated with, or at least considered part of, the wealth gap, income inequality, or any of the other current phrases that end in “gap” or “inequality.”
Currently, the Anglosphere is obsessed with ending the causes of “inequality,” and this little campaign often has a strong element of howling about “privilege” as the wellspring of achievement (finishing something one starts is a sign of being privileged.). Everything is constructed on the age-old fallacy of confusing correlation with causation. Back in the early 1990s, it was entirely within the realm of human possibility to complete a doctoral degree. The technological hurdles were much greater but they were hardly insurmountable. All the new technology has accomplished is to smooth the way, which, yes, may very well have contributed to the increase of people achieving advanced degrees. To say, however, that technology and any correlated benefits are to blame for any inadequacies, material or professional, on the part of those who quit is illogical.