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.
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.
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!