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.