Monday, November 28, 2016

The Mind of the American College Student

Trust me. I do not revel in the opportunity to cast aspersions on America’s youth. I do not thrill to the prospect of writing churlish commentaries about the snowflake generation, or even about the millennial generation. After all, America’s children are its future, and we all prefer to remain optimistic about America’s future. The happiness merchants in the world of cognitive psychology have insisted that we do so.

Lately, as students take to their crying towels and tootsie-rolls to whine about the most recent presidential election, it has become harder and harder to see a bright side to this open-air therapy. But, it is not remarkable that these students, for having been raised in a therapy culture, think first of their feelings and last, if at all, about what is happening in the world.

Their education has cut them off from their civilizational roots and their national pride so they are suffering from mass anomie… if such is possible.

Naturally, some commenters have proposed, reasonably, that my view of the younger generation is unduly harsh. They cannot possibly be as bad as they appear to my jaded vision. It’s easy for the older generation to take pot shots at the younger generation. Even if one’s motives are pure—as mine certainly are—it all looks utterly and unreasonably judgmental. We would not want that.

Besides, since I do not teach at a university I do not have very much direct contact with the snowflake generation. A fair point, indeed. But one that does not apply to Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen.

Deneen has taught at Georgetown and Princeton. Thus, he has earned the right to offer some opinions about his students. In an article that appeared in Minding the Campus (via American Digest) early this year Deneen offered a view that is based in real experience. Sorry to have to say it, but his opinion of today’s college students is bleaker than mine. It turns out that I have been offering a rosy scenario about today’s youth. Who would have guessed?

Don’t believe me? Try this, from Deneen:

My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of … a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.

In other circles it’s called cosmopolitanism, or citizen-of-the-worldism. It seeks to cut students off from their culture roots, the better to make them into fully human asocial beings.

As Deneen sees it, the educational system and our culture at large have done it on purpose:

Our students’ ignorance is not a failing of the educational system – it is its crowning achievement. Efforts by several generations of philosophers and reformers and public policy experts — whom our students (and most of us) know nothing about — have combined to produce a generation of know-nothings. The pervasive ignorance of our students is not a mere accident or unfortunate but correctible outcome, if only we hire better teachers or tweak the reading lists in high school. It is the consequence of a civilizational commitment to civilizational suicide. The end of history for our students signals the End of History for the West.

And also:

What our educational system aims to produce is cultural amnesia, a wholesale lack of curiosity, history-less free agents, and educational goals composed of content-free processes and unexamined buzz-words like “critical thinking,” “diversity,” “ways of knowing,” “social justice,” and “cultural competence.”

As I have occasionally mentioned, if you do not identify yourself as a member of a group, but only as a member of the species, you need not practice the kinds of good behavior that will sustain and maintain your membership. Since you do not need to do anything to continue to be a member of the human species and since nothing you can do will cause you to be any more or less human, cutting people off from community and their common culture makes them amoral.

Deneen explains:

In such a world, possessing a culture, a history, an inheritance, a commitment to a place and particular people, specific forms of gratitude and indebtedness (rather than a generalized and deracinated commitment to “social justice”), a strong set of ethical and moral norms that assert definite limits to what one ought and ought not to do (aside from being “judgmental”) are hindrances and handicaps.

It began with multiculturalism and ended with the idealization of diversity:

Efforts first to foster appreciation for “multi-culturalism” signaled a dedication to eviscerate any particular cultural inheritance, while the current fad of “diversity” signals thoroughgoing commitment to de-cultured and relentless homogenization.

You end up not belonging to anything. You have no real interest in connecting to your culture, to the achievements of your forebears. Thus, you are lost and adrift… ignorant and self-absorbed. Your values, such as they will be, are valueless.

In Deneen’s words:

Ancient philosophy and practice praised as an excellent form of government a res publica – a devotion to public things, things we share together. We have instead created the world’s first Res Idiotica – from the Greek word idiotes, meaning “private individual.” Our education system produces solipsistic, self-contained selves whose only public commitment is an absence of commitment to a public, a common culture, a shared history. They are perfectly hollowed vessels, receptive and obedient, without any real obligations or devotions.

How are we going to get out of this predicament? Deneen is slightly less optimistic than I am, but his point deserves consideration. People will not wake up to the cost of cultural collapse until everything else collapses all around them.

But even on those better days, I can’t help but hold the hopeful thought that the world they have inherited – a world without inheritance, without past, future, or deepest cares – is about to come tumbling down, and that this collapse would be the true beginning of a real education.

Have a nice day!


Trigger Warning said...

"[The] collapse would be the true beginning of a real education."

Precisely the reason I was a Hillary voter until late in the campaign. Channeling Mencken, I felt the hothouse flowers deserved to get what they wanted from a Clinton Presidency "good and hard".

David Foster said...

C S Lewis said (quoting very loosely)

"If you want to destroy an infantry unit, you cut it off from its adjacent units. If you want to destroy a generation, you cut it off from other generations"

Ares Olympus said...

It seems to be a confusing lament by Patrick Deneen, mostly talking about a lack of history lessons. He's not demeaning them as the "snowflake" generation.

And its extra curious that on the one hand, we have a complaint that each generation seems to take longer and longer to mature, and with grad school and postgrad so many are going to school until they're nearly 30 years old, before they enter a real world where they have to prove themselves and carry their weight, and start to pay off their perhap more than $100k in student loans.

And then on the other hand, according to Deneen, students are just Pavlovian dogs, learning to jump through hoops for treats. So its not the treats he's complaining about, but that we've sent them through the wrong hoops, not getting them to properly understand the entire history of ancient civilization in all this delayed adulthood.

It does remind me of E.F. Schumacher's advice:
He says that the tasks of an individual can be summed up as follows:
1. Learn from society and tradition.
2. Interiorize this knowledge, learn to think for yourself and become self-directed.
3. Grow beyond the narrow concerns of the ego.

So this article questions whether some 20+ years of schooling is properly educating children in #1. And if we've succeeded, students should not just be parroting what they're told like animals, but using their own sifting process, which we may or may not approve of.

And Schumacher's third task is most difficult. At least we can question how people grow past their narrow concerns of the ego, and when we're burdening the latest generation with record levels of student debt, and putting them into a job market that may or may not have something for them to fit into, that's a hard place to step beyond ego. So if you find your path, and start paying down your debts, and start to think how you're going to save $50k for a downpayment for a house and all the modern trappings under life long debt.

Anyway, it does seem to be that being in debt makes for bad citizens, people who can't allow themselves to think far beyond their own needs.

If I were to offer blame, I'd go for the rapid rate of change in our culture, and so its hard for each generation to even imagine back to their own horrible uncertainty where to fit in an adult world, much less have any honest or good advice how to fit into this brave new world we've created, one where some people get fast-tracked into the elite, while others can work as had as they can for decades and still not find the American Dream within reach.

On the good side, is that we all have access to more information about the world, and our past than every before. On the bas side, much of it seems irrelevant to the predicaments at hand.

Still, there's no more excuses for ignorance. I remember one professor in college, be brought an alarm clock to class and used it as a prop. He said time is the most important thing we have, and if we want to succeed, we need to stay on task, and focus on what's in front of us. And as he was taking, he wrapped the cord around the clock as a symbol for our wrapped attention.

Of course those days were before internet and infinite distractive opportunities young people have now.

It is all scary to imagine where things lead, and given the amount of nonsense out there now, it does seem that Carl Sagan's demon haunted world is not avoidable - and we're all prefering to fall back into fear and superstition, than face truths that tell us many of the ways we've handled things in the past just don't work any more.

Trigger Warning said...

Interesting to know you get your advice for higher education from Wikipedia. Good source to start with, but as you expand your language skills, you may be able to utilize books and scholarly articles. Keep up the work!

And, by the way, it's not "wrapped attention", it's "rapt attention". I know. Homophones are hard, and there are a lot of them in English. If you learn them one piece at a time, you'll feel more at peace with the language.

Trigger Warning said...

And yes, it is scary to imagine where things lead... for some people. :-O

You need to find a Safe Space to do your sifting.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

"Naturally, some commenters have proposed, reasonably, that my view of the younger generation is unduly harsh."

Not this commenter.

What I've found interesting about commenters who think you're too harsh is that they see your critique as a reflection on them: their children, their parenting. You spot it, you got it.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

"In other circles it’s called cosmopolitanism, or citizen-of-the-worldism."

I call it a chilling combination of blithe ignorance, malignant stupidity and intrepid indifference.

Ares Olympus said...

Key, Trigger Warning, thanks for the corrections, a bit too punny on my efforts I guess.

Incidentally on the issue of the poor state of students these days, Jonathan Haidt offered a presentation on the problems of education between the old standard of truth, and the new standard of justice. He doesn't do any snarky name-calling like saying the Snowflake generation, but otherwise excellent. Is there hope anyone will listen, and can those who listen get through to leadership that can act on it? "Two incompatible sacred values in American universities" Jon Haidt, Hayek Lecture Series
On October 6, 2016, Professor Jonathan Haidt gave a Hayek Lecture at Duke.

Professor Haidt argues that conflicts arise at many American universities today because they are pursuing two potentially incompatible goals: truth and social justice. While Haidt thinks both goals are important, he maintains that they can come into conflict.

According to some versions of social justice, whenever we observe a disparity of outcomes between races, genders, or other groups, we should infer that injustice has been done. Haidt challenges this view of social justice and shows how it sometimes leads to violations of truth, and even justice.

Haidt concludes that universities should be free to pursue whatever goals – truth or social justice – they want, but that they should make it clear which of these two goals is their “telos” – their highest purpose. He ends with a discussion of his initiative,, to bring more viewpoint diversity to universities in order to improve research and learning.

Dennis said...

For one's edification:
Wikipedia is NOT considered an accurate or reliable source. As has been stated it can be a place to start one's research, but one requires much more than that,especially in the Humanities. Bias has been a problem in Wikipedia contributors.

Is there a time when you think for yourself? The use of a decision tree that takes in the various permutations to explore to reach a well reasoned analysis of a problem vice believing in experts. Bias exist even in supposed experts. So many experts so few experts.

Ares Olympus said...

Hey Dennis,

I did quote from a wikipedia article from one of my favorite authors, E.F. Schumacher, but I also have the book itself. Unfortunately the full book is not available online.

If you're interested in my quotes or summaries from Wikipedia, YOU can go further too. You can surely find the book at a local library, or get your own copy from Amazon, used copies as cheap as $0.01, of course they add $3.99 for S&H.

And if you happen to read the book and see Wikipedia is misrepresenting the contents of the book, feel free to add a comment about that on the book article talk page, or improve the summary article yourself.

I'm sure many Schumacher fans would appreciate your effort.

Or you could just ignore it, which is fine too.