Monday, May 31, 2010

The Mind of Young America

If the young are our future, we have a problem. That's what you would have to conclude after reading the recent studies about the millennial generation's empathy deficit.

You would also have to wonder at the irony of it all. Therapy and its culture have been touting the value of empathy for decades now. The culture at large believes in empathy, in feeling for other people, beyond almost any other values. Bill Clinton taught us how to feel everyone's pain, and the educational establishment has made schoolwork more feeling friendly.

But, why then are today's young people so deficient in this primary human social skill?

How deficient are they? According to a University of Michigan study college students today are 40% less empathetic than their counterparts of 20 and 30 years ago. Link here. Via Dr. Helen.

The study suggests that today's college students could care less about anyone else and are not in the least interested in seeing things from anyone else's perspective.

So, no one is feeling anyone's pain any more. And this means that these students have no real sense of belonging to a community or of the importance of interacting with other human beings. It seems that they took all that talk about independence and autonomy a little too seriously for their own good.

But where could they have learned such things? Aren't they all liberal Democrats, don't they feel for the poor and the unfortunate among us, don't they all yearn to do community service, don't they support every imaginable program to help the less fortunate, and don't they feel deeply for the whales, the polar bears, and the dolphins?

How does it happen that they have all of these deep feelings and are still self-absorbed and self-indulgent to the point of behaving like full blown narcissists.

Here political correctness makes a contribution, especially by teaching young people to be intolerant of differing political and cultural viewpoints. If you tell people that they should only listen to people whose ideas echo their own, you are in the business of producing narcissists. Remember that the mythic Narcissus attracted the unrequited love of a nymph named Echo.

It also true that many of these students have invested their caring feelings so completely in whales and seals that they might not have very much left for their fellow humans. If you learned how to care by watching movies about polar bears you are developing a care muscle that has little use when you are called on to feel for your fellow humans.

Clearly, something paradoxical is afoot in the land. Dr. Helen Smith identifies the problem clearly. In her view, students are gaining their good feelings on the cheap. They support government programs that are supposed to care for people because they want to feel good about having the right feelings. They have not advanced to the level of wondering about whether these programs are helping real people.

The students are so involved with their own good feelings that they have no sense of the realities of the programs they support. If you really care about other people you care about whether they have jobs. If you support quasi-socialistic experiments that end up costing jobs and then vote for politicians who want to set up more and more programs to take care of the unemployed... does that show how much you care for other people or how little you are interested in their lives?

The authors of the Michigan study have decided that students are suffering an empathy deficit because they have been too exposed to the media, and because they spend too much time on Facebook.

Be that as it may, Dr. Helen is much closer to the truth when she states that this empathy deficit is precisely what you would expect from children whose education had been run by people whose greatest concern is fostering high self-esteem.

At some point in recent history schoolteachers and professors decided to downplay academic subjects and to overplay self-esteem-building among their pupils. They decided to place less emphasis on the dry-as-dust academic subjects and to make the classroom into a group therapy session where everyone could express their feelings.

And since they did not want anyone to feel bad, they de-emphasized grades, competition, and concrete achievements.

As Dr. Helen points out, when you try to foster high self-esteem regardless of achievement, you have gotten into the business of producing narcissists, people whose self-regard is purely self-generated. If the only valid standard of your self-worth is how you feel about yourself, then clearly, you have descended into narcissism.

For further evidence of the influence of the self-esteem movement we can look at a recent column by someone who seems to have more mixed feelings about it. I am referring to Judith Warner's essay in the New York Times a week ago, "The Why-Worry Generation." Link here.

Warner is looking at a different group, recent college graduates, but this group merely comprises the older brothers and sisters of the college-aged generation. She opens her column by saying that this group has been depicted in less than flattering terms, as: "entitled whiners who have been spoiled by parents who overstoked their self-esteem, teachers who granted undeserved A's, and sports coaches who bestowed trophies on anyone who showed up."

Warner does not seem quite as alarmed as I am about all this-- I think she believes that this depiction is a bit of a caricature-- but she is willing to consider the evidence. When she does, she discovers a generation that is so completely full of itself that it is out of touch with reality. But she agrees with Dr. Helen in placing the responsibility at the feet of those who have taught young people to have baseless self-esteem.

Take a look at the evidence, as Warner reports it: "The unemployment rate for early 20 somethings is close to 20%.... Yet, despite the fact that the new graduates are in no position to pose conditions for employers, many are increasingly declaring themselves unwilling to work more than 40 hours a week. Graduates are turning down job offers in large numbers-- essentially opting to move back home with their parents if the work offered doesn't match their self-assessment."

Not only do these young people have no concept of the value of their work in the marketplace, but they have no work ethic either.

You would think that they would recognize a bad economy and a weak job market as realities. You would have thought, as Warner suggests, that they would understand that you have to negotiate with reality, not impose your post-adolescent will on it.

Apparently, this is not the case. For all of their great educational credentials a large number of these young people do not have the skills required to observe reality, to analyze situations, to draw conclusions, to develop action plans, and to implement them.

Warner is surprised to discover that 41% of this group turned down job offers this year. And they did it because they wanted to live the values promoted by the self-esteem movement and the therapy culture.

One professor explained the millennials, as follows: "Almost universally they want to find a job that's not just a job but an expression of their identity, a form of self-fulfillment."

Ask not what you can bring to your job; ask what your job can do for you? Isn't the workplace there to fulfill your soul's need for meaning?

Warner also shows that the millennials have absorbed another lesson from the therapy culture. They are wide-eyed optimists above and beyond all else.

They have bought all of the hope and change rhetoric. As another professor noted: "They're extraordinarily optimistic that things will work out for them.... Everybody thinks that bright days are ahead and that eventually they will find that terrific job."

No one seems ever to have told them that the best way to get that terrific job is to take a less-than-terrific job and perform terrifically at it.

I do not mean to say that there is anything wrong with optimism. Nor, after all, is there anything wrong with confidence. But when optimism becomes a be-all and end-all, regardless of the reality you are facing, it is no longer your friend. And confidence is also a good thing, except when your belief in your own ability has no real relationship with your actual achievements. Then it becomes a rather nasty enemy.

The strange part of Warner's article is that she seems to approve of what the self-esteem movement and the therapy culture have wrought. Since she, as opposed to today's college students, gives a full and fair hearing to the side of the argument that appeals more to me, I am happy to present her point of view.

In her words: "... with their seemingly inexhaustible well of positive self-regard, their refusal to have their horizons defined by the limitations of our era, they just may bear witness to the precise sort of resilience that all parents, educators, and pop psychologists say they view as proof of a successful upbringing."

I am far from certain that all parents and educators think this way. I hope they do not. And I am far from certain that we ought to allow pop psychologists to define what it means to develop character.

I do find it strange that Warner drops into an argument from authority, as though the simple fact that our culture, in this time and place, has decided that high self-esteem is of consummate importance must mean that it is of consummate importance.

Of course, it is not bad to be optimistic; sometimes it helps you persevere in hard times. Nor is it bad to feel a level of confidence that is a notch above your achievements. And there is nothing wrong with being resilient in the face of limitations.

But once you accompany those qualities with a deficient work ethic and the belief that the world owes you a living, and must recognize your talents as you, and not the market, judge them, you are headed for some serious trouble.


Anonymous said...

I was discussing almost this same thing with a college-age female acquaintance. Well, a bartender, really. As she put it:

"I'm supposed to give-a-shit about the polar bears, the oil well, the poor and the entire planet. I just can't do it. All I can do is take care of myself, I guess...."

In her words: "... with their seemingly inexhaustible well of positive self-regard, their refusal to have their horizons defined by the limitations of our era, they just may bear witness to the precise sort of resilience that all parents, educators, and pop psychologists say they view as proof of a successful upbringing."

How stupid! This outlook won't stand the first contact with reality. When your inexhaustable well of self-regard runs dry; when your horizons are limited by your own shortcomings.... Oh, you'll find what you're made of.

Of course, it is not bad to be optimistic; sometimes it helps you persevere in hard times.

Optimism is a form of cowardice until you are in a bad, bad situation and you are profoundly and deeply aware of just how screwed you are, then it is a form of courage you may not survive without.


Ralph said...

I read a comment by a child psychologist a few years ago, that today's child is a consumer, not a producer in the family. Where in days past children were considered blessings and more helping hands in a family, especially a farm, today both parents work to provide a wonderful life (materially) for their kids.

I would be interested to know what chores and duties today's children typically are expected to do in today's family. Does having work as a child translate to understanding its value as an adult?

I had a wealthy friend who kicked her daughter out of her house after she graduated from college and got a job. The daughter protested too. I admired my friend for that, because she wasn't mean, but firm about recognizing it was time for her daughter to grow up. This friend started her own business when she was 18 out of high school, lived and valued a good work ethic that she wanted her daughter to continue. Her daughter did not go to work in her business.

I also worked for a wealthy man with 8 kids that made the kids leave the business after graduation because, he said, there are a lot of ways to make money, and I guess he wanted his kids to find them like he did. He never bought his kids new cars either, just used.

US Citizen said...

the teachers that try to install the proper values in the students are stopped by the administration. this problem is a cancer that goes all through k-9 and with out a massive change in all grades our country is in grave trouble. The young people coming out of school believe we owe them and they do not need to work because that is what they have been taught in school. hard work is no longer the key to getting a head (it just happens). The education system in America is killing us.

Anonymous said...

One thing I noticed everyone is ignoring, the study didn't look at differences in Gender. Most studies that make gal's look better than guy's have a gender bracket.

This one doesn't, and interestingly enough the 40% decrease in college student empathy correlates with a 40% increase in the female student body percentage of the total student body.

And interestingly enough the American Association of University Women had a hand to play in this study, an Association with a long history of advocating bigotry and sexism towards males.

If you doubt me look up the role they played in the creation of the current Academic war against boy's and adult male students.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks to everyone for offering some excellent commentary.

I am especially struck by the last comment, to the effect that this empathy deficit seems to correspond to the increasingly disproportionate number of women in American higher education.

Surely, it is ironic that having more representatives of the empathetic gender should produce less overall empathy?