Where’s The Shrub?

When George W. Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, recently endorsed Mitt Romney reporters asked Romney whether he expected to get the younger Bush’s endorsement. (Let’s call him “the Shrub” to distinguish him from his father, “the Bush.) No one seems to know, and apparently the Republicans aren’t eager to hitch themselves to that particular horse. You remember — the one that led us into two wars and left a huge budget deficit after sneaking into office under questionable circumstances (and the assistance of Ralph Nader). The Republicans in general would prefer if we forgot that and blamed Obama for the mess. As a recent news story mentions, “In a presidential contest dominated by concerns over the economy, government spending and federal debt, the Republican candidates have been loath to acknowledge the extent to which the George W. Bush administration’s policies contributed to those problems.” Indeed.

In any event, it would seem that the Shrub’s silence will be encouraged as Romney hopes to distance himself from what he apparently regards as a political pariah. The Shrub himself also seems to want to remain in the distance — working on the building of the Bush Presidential library at a local university. “‘For now we’re just staying out of it,’ George W. Bush spokesman Freddy Ford said Thursday, declining to comment on a possible endorsement. Ford said Bush was focused on promoting and developing a presidential library bearing his name at Southern Methodist University.” Is it possible to develop a library consisting only of comic books? I’m just askin’.

But it would appear that the Shrub’s father (the Bush) doesn’t seem to want to remember his son’s legacy as 43rd President of the United States. We are told that his picture is hidden in the Bush’s office behind a flag. The Bush was actually a pretty good President, as Presidents go these days. His son’s performance must have been a severe disappointment as the Shrub was clearly on anyone’s list of the ten worst Presidents this country has ever had. Henry Adams thought Grant was living proof of the flaw in Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the Shrub would be even stronger evidence. But then Darwin allowed for occasional anomalies so perhaps his theory is safe.

In any event Mitt will have to soldier on without the endorsement (for the time being) of George W. Bush — though he has that of both the Shrub’s father and his brother Jeb. You remember Jeb: he was former governor of Florida and led the charge to pass a law giving permission for people in Florida to shoot first and ask questions later. So, how’s that working out?

Slippery Slopes

The Supreme Court recently heard arguments for and against the mandate in the new health insurance law that was passed in 2010 amid much weeping and gnashing of teeth — and little sanity. Like the camel the law is a creature of compromise. A recent editorial in USA Today about the court’s upcoming decision tells us what the key issue is they will have to decide upon: “Tuesday’s Supreme Court arguments over the ‘individual mandate’ contained in the 2010 health care law came down to one core question: If the government can require you to buy medical insurance, what else could it make you buy?”

This, of course, is the classical “slippery slope” fallacy. One thing invariably leads to another. If the government is allowed to mandate that everyone must have health insurance where will it stop? Cars? Cell phones? Broccoli? I must say, it is a tad disturbing to think that some of the best minds in the country could have made such a mistake in elementary logic, though if we all ate broccoli we would be healthier. The discussion got a bit absurd, apparently, until Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out the rationale behind the individual mandate: “The people who don’t participate in (the health insurance) market are making it much more expensive for the people who do,” she observed about 20 minutes into the two-hour debate. The fact the many do not have health insurance yet still require medical attention drives up the costs for everyone else — about $1,000.00 for a typical family policy. Health insurance is not like broccoli, however. It’s quite simple. One can avoid the slippery slope by simply pointing out key differences. One thing does not necessarily lead to another. As the editorial points out, “Where’s the line? As in a famous court decision on pornography, we know it when we see it. Yes to health insurance. No to cars, cellphones and broccoli.”

It will be interesting to see how the court votes on this case when their decision comes down in June. It is expected that, once again, the court will be divided along ideological lines and this raises provocative questions about the supposed impartiality of this court in issues political. To quote the editorial once again, “Another 5-4 decision along ideological lines would taint the court’s credibility. The court would do itself, and the nation, a service by upholding the mandate while defining reasonable limits on what else the government could require.” Indeed so.

The idea in the Founders’ minds was that a court appointed for life would be above political ideology and would actually act in a wise and judicious manner. It has happened in the past with justices appointed by a Republican president who turned out to be rather liberal, or vice versa. Earl Warren jumps to mind. But not recently. The justices appointed of late have kept their political allegiance pretty much intact. Perhaps it is time to revisit the question of how the court is appointed and how long their terms should last. If they were subject to periodic recall, they might be a bit more above petty politics. But the issue of constitutional reform is one that must be put off until a later blog. For the moment, I would simply point out that accepting the notion of a mandate in this case does not start us down a slippery slope to calamity.

Never Say “No”

The revelations highlighted in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently about the “Millennials” and the study that shows them to be much more “me” oriented than previously thought is really not all that surprising. The phrase “the me generation” has been used for some time now, and what this recent study shows is that it has just become worse.

Christopher Lasch wrote the definitive book on the subject back in 1979 when he noted that “.. .the collapse of parental authority reflects the collapse of ‘ancient impulse controls’ and the shift from a society in which the values of self-restraint were ascendant to one in which more and more recognition was given to the values of self-indulgence.” (The Culture of Narcissism) Increased “self-indulgence” in the absence of a strong parental authority figure, according to Lasch, leads invariably to narcissism. In a word, permissive parents in the 1960s and 1970s were regarded by a prominent social psychologist as the root cause of the narcissism that was becoming prevalent at that time and has grown exponentially since then.

But, if this does not astonish us, we can see the same insight suggested in the pages of a novel written 50 years before Lasch wrote his book. Edith Wharton, in Twilight Sleep  is making fun of Mrs. Pauline Manford the flighty, empty-headed do-gooder who seems to be able to embrace numerous contradictory ideas comfortably at the same time. I mentioned her in a previous blog. She is busy at one point in the novel forming a League of Mothers (!) “against the dreadful practice of telling children they were naughty. Had she ever stopped to think what an abominable thing it was to suggest to a pure innocent child that there was such a thing in the world as Being Naughty? What did it open the door to? Why to the idea of Wickedness, the most awful idea in the whole world. . . how could there be bad children if children were never allowed to know that such a thing as badness existed?” Now there’s logic at work for you!

Though permissive parenting was a theme soon to be picked up by every pop-psychologist who could find a publisher, it is possible that Wharton may have been poking gentle fun at A.S.Neill’s Summerhill project which had started up in England a few years earlier. Summerhill was a “free school”  which had no requirements whatever and just let the kids hang out until something struck their fancy at which point, presumably, they would start to learn. The assumption was that they would not learn anything unless they were interested in it, which is absurd — though it is certainly easier if the child is interested. That’s the teacher’s job, after all. If Wharton was making fun of the idea, she was joined by such eminent thinkers as Bertrand Russel, among others, who ridiculed Neill’s experiment. But to no avail. The idea caught on in England and gave great impetus to the progressive movement in the schools in this country as well. It is still very much in evidence in the self-esteem movement which is simply the latest chapter in this rather tiresome and ill-conceived “never-say-no” educational “theory.” In fact, the entire movement, combined with an economic system that encourages competition among individuals and the accumulation of as much stuff as possible in the shortest amount of time, leads to generations of students who have turned into adults preoccupied with themselves and their own well-being which they pretty much define in terms of material success.

Thus, much of the fuss over the “Millennials” is misplaced and should really be focused on the tendency toward cultural narcissism that Christopher Lasch identified in 1979 and which began at least as early as 1924 when A.S. Neill started Summerhill. Those of us who worry about the continued survival of Western civilization are almost certainly whistling in the dark — or spitting into the wind if you prefer. The ship has sailed and the wisest course of action might well be to simply wait and see where it ends up. The problem with this laissez-faire attitude, however, is that narcissism leads to excessive violence, as Lasch has shown, and a society made up of expanding numbers of violent people preoccupied with their own material well-being is not likely to care a helluva lot about those around them or the world they share in common with millions of others on the planet. So I will keep spitting.

Computer Fix

Jane Healy, whom I have referred to in these blogs before, has written a book Failure to Connect that comes out against computer assisted learning, especially in the early grades. Her message comes through with considerable conviction and persuasive power. One of the reviewers on Amazon gave the book high grades:

“As a person who grew up in the technology age, who has over 10 yrs of experience in industry, who has two young children in public schools, and who happens to be working on a Ph.D in issues of technology and society, I am directly involved with the issues she raises. Healy’s research and argumentation leave something to be desired, but her basic conclusions are correct: there is little or no justification for the use of computers or other high technology devices in schools, especially elementary and middle schools. [Those] who are critical of Healy are not addressing the main points: (1) there is little evidence that computer-aided instruction improves academic performance; (2) there is sufficient evidence, although no proof, that computer usage can be both physically and mentally harmful, and this justifies great caution; (3) the idea that kids need computer experience ‘to get ready for the real world’, or ‘to be competitive’, is a complete myth. Everything a child needs to learn about computers can be accomplished in the last few years of high school. Children in K-5 especially have virtually zero need for computer technology, and no one I have come across has provided arguments to the contrary.

“Too many teachers and parents mindlessly follow along with the trend of computerizing our schools. In a debate dominated by one side, all opposing views are welcome. Healy provides an accessible account of the anti-technology case, and this alone makes her book well worth reading.”

I quote the comments at some length because they are both well stated and also to the point. It is certainly the case that the argument in favor of using computers in the classroom has been made, for the most part, by those with a vested interest in their use — to wit, the corporations that stand to profit from computer sales. Healy on the other hand, has no axe to grind. Further, she has had considerable classroom experience and has also taught in schools of education. She started her career in complete support of computer-assisted learning and after years of hands-on experience and considerable research decided that putting computers in the hands of young kids is a serious mistake. I think this must be right because it is what I thought all along and, as I have said before, we tend to think those claims correct that fit in with our belief system. This one fits like a glove.

Healy has for years given careful thought to the question of what we are doing to our kids’ minds. The evidence is strong, as the reviewer above suggests, that we should pull back and rethink our fascination with things technical: they may be damaging the brains of those who use them, especially young kids. Whether or not we buy Healy’s thesis, prudence would urge caution, surely.

Is there any way to improve on the way a child learns than to have them in a room with a dedicated teacher who listens and carefully explains what kids need to know? Surely not. You simply cannot replace dialogue. We need to think again about our mindless conviction that what is newer and faster is ipso facto better. What can technical wizardry possibly promise that would in fact improve on human contact and interaction? Nothing.

Belief Sets

ABC News interviewed Karilyn Bates, wife of Staff Sargent Robert Bates, the man accused of killing 17 civilians in Afghanistan recently. She provides an intriguing picture of how the mind deals with stress and confusion — not her husband’s but her’s.

To begin with, she refuses to believe her husband would have done such a terrible thing. It’s “unbelievable….he would not do that,” she said. But, then, he served four tours of duty in Iraq before serving three in Afghanistan and Karilyn admits “he shielded from me a lot of what he went through,” including a head wound which caused traumatic brain injury. She does admit that when she spoke with him as he sits in Leavenworth prison awaiting trial he “seemed a bit confused as to where he was and why he was there.” Now clearly there are pieces of this account that simply do not fit together. We have a woman who admits that her husband kept things from her and that he was confused when she spoke with him. Yet she refuses to believe that he could have done such a thing as shoot 17 civilians after seven tours of duty in two different war zones.

This is interesting for two reasons. To begin with, it is a case of crass exploitation of a terrible situation by the media. ABC will pass this interview off as “news,” but there is nothing whatever this woman can tell us that will shed light on what her husband may or may not have done in Afghanistan. It is maudlin entertainment designed to get the ratings. Secondly, it is an example of the way the human mind works under stress, though I would argue that it resembles the way most human minds work most of the time.

My point here is not to make fun of the wife of a soldier who was doing his duty and seems to have suffered from an injury that should have been spotted by those around him long before he took a rifle and a pistol and went out (twice, apparently) and shot innocent civilians in a war-torn country. It is clear that Karilyn Bates is in denial, and it is entirely understandable. But what is interesting is the contradictions that dwell comfortably together in what we like to call the woman’s “belief system.” (George Eliot pointed out that we should not call it a system at all because it is a nest of inconsistencies and contradictions — not just those of a distraught wife, but those of us all.) Let’s call it a “belief set,” simply a set of beliefs that don’t always (seldom?) cohere.

Clearly when we are under stress we are more prone to this sort of thing, but there is good evidence that a great many people are perfectly comfortable every day of their lives embracing the most blatant contradictions — “pro-lifers” who support the death penalty, for example, or Democrats who vote for a wealthy, hawkish presidential candidate. Edith Wharton describes the type (who is all-too-common) in her character Pauline Manford in Twilight Sleep. Pauline is a social busy-body committed to such opposing causes as increasing the world’s population while at the same time practicing birth control — intent on improving the world by making it conform to her curious blend of ideals. She is contemplating several notions simultaneously in one pivotal scene when Wharton tells us that “Pauline felt no more inconsistency in this double train of thought than she did in shuddering at the crimes of the Roman Church and longing to receive one of its dignitaries with all proper ceremonials. She was used to such rapid adjustments, and proud of the fact that whole categories of contradictory opinions lay down [peacefully] together in her mind.” As I say, Pauline Manford is a token of a type that is very much among us and just as worthy of ridicule today as it was in the 20s of the last century.

Emerson famously said that “consistency is the hobgoblin of tiny minds.” Perhaps he was right. But then consistency is one of the few rules of thinking that allows us to get things right. If we do not obey the laws of thought and the rules of coherence and consistency we are easy prey to unprincipled demagogues who would capture and hold our minds prisoners of their own personal agendas. In a word, we don’t then know what we are doing. It’s time to consider seriously about requiring all pupils in our public schools to take a course in logic! No, check that: it’s past time.

The Cost of a Human Life

The latest on the killings of 17 Afghanistan civilians by an American soldier starts as follows: “KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — The United States has paid $50,000 in compensation for each Afghan killed and $11,000 for each person wounded in the shooting spree allegedly committed by a U.S. soldier in southern Afghanistan, an Afghan official and a community elder said Sunday.”

I must say, I am proud of my government that it is willing to come up with such a sum to compensate the families of the victims. It beats the $1,000.00 or $2,000.00 the Afghan government paid out for the woundings and killings (respectively). It shows how much more generous we are. But seriously? How on earth does anyone come up with any dollar amount to compensate a distraught parent for the loss of his or her child? It cannot be done. And how do we decide on the correct dollar amount for a wound? Some wounds are more serious than others. Perhaps they should have come up with some sort of sliding scale. Again, seriously?

I am reminded of the calculation Ford Motor Company came up with some years ago for the victims in fiery collisions in their Pinto motor car. Ford, led by Lee Iacocca at the time, got out their handy calculator and figured out how much each maiming and each death should be worth — and then decided it would be cheaper to run the risk of law suits than to recall all of the Pintos on the road to replace a part that would have cost $11.00 per vehicle. So they didn’t recall the cars.

Surely, this is the reductio ad absurdum of our urge to quantify everything from love to life itself. How much does it cost? How fast can it go? How long before the battery runs out? How much is it worth to you?  Look at the chart and tell me how bad the pain is from 1 to 10. If it can’t be quantified, it ain’t real, so we think.

I don’t know about you, but I know if I was handed a check for even as much as $50,000.00 for the killing of my son or wife by a half-crazed soldier I would find it totally inadequate. You simply cannot measure some things — like the life of a loved one — by dollars and cents. And you cannot quantify something like love or fear, but they are very real. We need to tear ourselves away from the prejudice that wants to put a number on everything. The exact sciences are exact because they are supported by mathematics. That is entirely appropriate. But when the social sciences start posing as exact sciences by using math in the form of statistics and “studies” and “polls” we have started the skid toward absurdity — which is called “scientism” and it accompanies blind commitment to the scientific method in all walks of life.

Everything cannot be quantified. In fact, many of the most important things in human life cannot be quantified. But they are not only real, they are the very things that make us human. This is not a plea for metaphysics; it is a plea for common sense, and the rejection of the blind faith we all have in numbers. They cannot tell the whole story.

Don’t get me wrong. I am pleased that our government chose to compensate the families of the victims of the shooting in Afghanistan. I don’t see any other way it could have been done — except to have the U.S. government commit itself to a total withdrawal of troops from that country. But this seems even more doubtful after the chaos stirred up by the shooting itself. And, oh yes, make sure the perpetrator of these crimes is justly punished. But even if we cannot see an alternative to dollars for lives, it can never be enough.

A New York Minute

I thoroughly enjoy reading Sports Illustrated and have done for years. It is well written, timely, and insightful. I nearly always find food for thought as I am interested in sports and the numerous scandals that surround professional sports that I have myself written about and which SI always covers in depth. In the most recent issue, the editor holds forth on the short attention span of the American sporting public. No sooner have we experienced Tibomania than we are bored and move on to Linmania, which lasts until Jeremy Lin has a couple of bad games. This is assuredly true, though the exception is the sporting public’s fascination with Tiger Woods. But this exception simply proves the general rule. The editorial also provided the following gem, which has larger implications:

“Our culture moves at warp speed, no question, the weekly or even daily news cycle long since replaced by an up-to-the-second Twitter feed or Facebook update. We said goodbye to thoughtful consideration the day we moved over to microwave popcorn — because who could possibly wait for the stove-top variety. That’s our reality.”

The phrase I want to focus on is “we said goodbye to thoughtful consideration…” That does seem to sum up one of the salient facts about our culture. Not only do we have a short attention span that requires snippets rather than lengthy explanations, we also want our news to be entertaining and we also cannot stay focused on the latest sensation long enough to savor it fully. That is a shame. And it says a lot about us as a people. Teachers are finding it out about their pupils in the classroom and newspaper editors are finding it out about their shrinking readership. We want what we want in small, easily digested thought-bites and we want it now. We don’t relish the uncertainty of anticipation even though it increases delight. We cannot focus on an issue long enough to probe its depths and discover its hidden meanings. In a word, we cannot pause and think about things because our attention is brief and shallow.

It has been known for some time that kids need “down time,” a time when nothing is scheduled and they can simply be by themselves with nothing particular to do. I have always felt that adults need that as well, though I have never seen anyone make this claim. I know I prize my down time — which the Greeks called “leisure” and put a high price upon. It is a time when a person can be most creative, most productive. I find it in abundance as a retired person in the small town I am lucky enough to live in, where I am out of the “loop” and the world seems to go by in slow-motion. But not everyone is as lucky, and things seem to happen to most of us in too much of a hurry for us to assimilate what is going on. Thus frenzy replaces leisure. And this is the problem.

One of the things Victorian writers like George Eliot and Anthony Trollope worried about with the coming of the steam engine in the nineteenth century was precisely this: the pace of life would now becomes so fast that we would no longer have time to digest what is happening to us, to thoroughly enjoy the moment and discover what it really means. These writers never imagined the jet age, of course, and were not around to see the microwave replace the oven. But they knew what they were talking about. We have become a “me-here-now” culture that demands immediate satisfaction and doesn’t have time to stop and think. Furthermore, we don’t seem to be able to imagine the consequences of our actions or plan ahead. Our focus on the immediate present seems to have cost us our imagination, though part of that loss must be attributable to a media industry that is prone to overkill. In any event, we have  indeed “said goodbye to thoughtful consideration.” The payoff is predictable: anxiety blended with mistakes resulting from lack of foresight. These are certainly two of the most obvious symptoms of our age.

Shoot First

Florida is one of “at least 23 states” to have on the books a “shoot first” law that is designed to protect people against perceived threats – such as muggings and possible burglaries. In the five years since Florida passed the law “justifiable homicides” have more than tripled in that state and even though the law has come under close scrutiny of late, its defenders claim that it is a sound law and “that we should err on the side of those who fear they are facing a perceived threat.” How interesting! And how twisted in a country living in a supposedly enlightened age. Might we not rather want to err on the side of caution and preservation of human life? But this is Florida which is giving Texas a run for its money as the state any sensible person would most want to avoid.

Of great interest lately is the wanton killing of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida which certainly had racial overtones, since the young boy was black and had the audacity to be walking near a gated community. But let’s also consider an earlier case involving Jason Rosenbloom who in 2006 confronted his neighbor over the number of trash bags he had left on the corner — and was shot in the chest and hip for his troubles. In both cases there is a problem with the notion of “perceived” threat. The former policeman who shot Jason has no regrets and says his neighbor got what he deserved. The neighborhood watch volunteer who was cruising in his SUV and shot the young black boy he thought looked suspicious will almost certainly receive no punishment — in Florida at any rate. Florida law protects them both. Neither shooter could have possibly perceived a threat in the angry behavior of an unarmed and physically smaller man, who never came closer than 10 feet to his neighbor’s door, or an unarmed boy walking with a bag of groceries under his arm. But apparently the one pulling the trigger is the one who decides what is threatening behavior. And there’s the rub. What we have here is a step back in time into the lawless Wild West, except that here there is law and it explicitly protects those who shoot first.

The law reads as follows: “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity … has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” 

One would think that a group of supposedly intelligent legislators would have enough sense not to write such a vague phrase as “reasonably believes” into law. It does make shooting another person a matter of perception on the part of the shooter. It’s a judgment call. And perception, as we know, varies from person to person. But, then, perhaps we are wrong to assume that the legislators are intelligent. Perhaps.

I have spoken about the second amendment before and noted that the right to bear arms is tied inextricably with the absence of a standing army. That’s the way the Founders saw the relationship. With no standing army the country needs a militia and the militia needs to be armed. But those who defend people’s right to shoot first and ask questions later are loud in proclaiming their rights under the second amendment, which they probably never read. I stand by my earlier claim: those who shout loudest about the “right to bear arms” should also insist that the military be disbanded. It’s in the spirit of the amendment.

James Madison naively thought the best and brightest would rise to the top of government like cream in milk and become wise legislators. He was clearly wrong.  He and the other Founders brought together the notion of bearing arms with the lack of a standing army. In our wisdom we have managed to tear those notions apart. Could the Founders have possibly overestimated the intelligence of the voting public and, especially,  its representatives?

Political Games

A good chess player sees several moves ahead and plans his attack accordingly. A good politician sees his or her upcoming election (and very little beyond) and plans accordingly. Obama is an astute politician, though he has been a disappointing President. He sees far enough ahead to know that rising gas prices will cost him votes in November, so he plans accordingly: he announces his “full support” of the Keystone XL pipeline and “boasted Thursday that drilling, baby, drilling was a key part of his overall energy strategy.” This according to a recent Yahoo News release. How sad.

One would have hoped that this President could see far enough ahead to realize that domestic drilling will lead to more oil spills and the destruction of more wilderness, not to lower gas prices — certainly not before November. Those gas prices do not depend on domestic oil supplies anyway. They depend on factors well beyond our control, like the demand for oil in China and India, or the uncertainty in the Middle East. But gas is predicted to cost $4.00 a gallon very soon and polls show that Americans favor the pipeline as it will mean American jobs — at a time when 40,000 jobs in the clean energy industry are on hold awaiting some sort of commitment from this President and the Congress to something besides the worn-out energy policies that keep us on the same old path of fossil fuel dependence. In any event, President Obama has decided which side his bread is buttered on.

Predictably, the president of the National Wildlife Federation condemned Obama’s announced continuance of worn-out policies, and not surprisingly the Republicans claim it is not enough. But the fact remains that this move is typical politics-as-usual and an example of the short-term thinking that has gotten us so far down the wrong path turned in the wrong direction. We need to look at alternative, clean energies and we need the government to put its full weight behind a new and different policy, one that eliminates our dependence on fossil fuels and does not threaten more of the wilderness or lead to further oil spills and leaks. And the Keystone XL pipeline project is a mistake of the first order.

It will be interesting to see if Obama’s game plays out as he thinks it will, winning him some votes in November, or whether it will cost him enough votes from those of his supporters who hoped for a more enlightened energy policy from a man who said all the right things before he became President. It is a dangerous game, as he may lose the election. But not nearly as dangerous as the larger game of “drill, baby, drill” that sounds so familiar and increases the disillusionment of so many who hoped for more from this man. The larger game results inevitably in further destruction of the planet and increased oil dependence — a game we already know how to play, and one where everyone eventually loses.

It’s All About Me

A new study of “Millennials” summarized in the Chronicle of Higher Education is disquieting at best. The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and was conducted by Jean M. Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University. It happens that the generation that was supposed to be “we” oriented turns out to be even more “me” oriented than the generation that produced them.

The study shows that, contrary to popular misconceptions, those born since 1982 are increasingly self-absorbed, unconcerned about others or their environment. They are focused on money, image, and fame rather than such things as community involvement or acceptance by others. Countering the popular image of today’s youth as engaged, high-achieving, confident, and concerned about their world, Ms Twenge rejoins, “I see no evidence that today’s young people feel much attachment to duty or to group cohesion. Young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves.”

The article appeared in a recent issue of the Chronicle because educators are being alerted that the kids in their classrooms may not be the least bit interested in what they are being taught. This will come as no surprise to the men and women up front who have become increasingly aware that it’s all about entertainment and dumbing down the curriculum to disengaged students. I saw it happening before my eyes in my 41 years of college teaching. I simply could not ask the students in 1990 to read the same material I routinely required in 1970. Toward the end of my tenure I was involved in a required Freshman course. The assigned reading included Huxley’s Brave New World and the students not only had difficulty reading the simple text, but a great many of them resented having to read the book in the first place; on their course evaluations at the end of the semester a number of them asked openly what on earth the book had to do with them — as though that was the only thing that mattered. That was about ten years ago. It seems it isn’t getting any better; it’s getting worse.

We should not be surprised if the young people growing up today are self-absorbed. After all, theirs is the world of “self-esteem” in which they have been told since day #1 that they are great and can do no wrong. God forbid we should judge them. Indeed, they have developed an iron-clad sense of entitlement that leads them to the conviction that they are the only ones that matter. In a word, they are the product of our child-care and education system that demands little and rewards greatly. The chickens are coming home to roost.

But this study has important implications for more than just the teachers around the country who must figure a way to get through to increasingly self-absorbed young people. It has ramifications for society in general. As Ms Twenge says, “Having a population that is civically involved, is interested in helping others, and interested in the problems in the nation and the world, are generally good things.” But this is not happening. These young people are “more isolated and wrapped up in their own problems. It doesn’t bode well for society.”

Indeed not. At a time when we need people who can see beyond the stunted world of self to others and the larger world, it is unsettling to learn that the trend is in the opposite direction. I have written a book about this and touched on it in previous blogs; this report simply adds fuel to the fires of indignation that leads me to a deeper concern for the world my grandchildren will have to live in. What the world needs now is not more self-absorbed individualists, it needs heroes whose attention is directed outward and who care about the world and people around them. Let’s hope enough of them sneak through the cracks the system has put in place to make a difference.