All Body and No Mind

In a recent comment to one of my posts, my friend BTG recounts a study done not long ago that pointed out a key difference between young people in 1950 and in 2000. Recall that in 2000 we were already into the age of the “millennials,” those young people that are unduly preoccupied with themselves. In fact, the study showed that in 1950 12% of the young thought they were “important.” In 2000 that percentage grew to 84%. This is an astonishing statistic and worthy of serious reflection.

Much has been made about the fact that our generation is passing along a world to the younger generation that has even more problems than we faced and failed to address. No doubt this is true. They will be forced to address those problems if they are to survive. This sounds like hyperbole to those who dismiss global warming as just another cycle that the earth has seen for thousands of years and who insist that humans are in no way responsible for those radical changes that are now affecting our weather, melting the ice caps, burning up huge areas of dried-up forest, thawing the permafrost, and drowning islands in the Pacific. These are serious problems and whether our generation can be blamed for all of them is a moot question which will become increasing irrelevant as those who survive us struggle to deal with them. And eventually they will be forced to deal with them. That much we know.

And yet, if these people think the only thing that matters is their very own self, and if they become increasingly unable to use the left half of their brains which does the thinking, we can predict that a collision is inevitable. The problems cannot be solved if they are never addressed or when addressed are dealt with by a generation of people whose only interest is in their own comings and goings, who do not know how to anticipate, imagine, or plan.

I have blogged (some would say endlessly) about the “self-esteem” movement in our schools and homes. Given the growing body of clinical evidence, there is no question that this movement has contributed to the millennialists’ preoccupation with themselves. The movement insists that self-esteem can be developed and nourished only by telling the young, whether deserved or not, that they are wonderful and that the things they do are truly marvelous. That this tactic does not work has also been shown to be a mistake in those clinical studies that reveal the fact — known to common sense — that self-esteem can only be developed and nourished by honest appraisal that follows from hard word and genuine achievement. In a word, telling Johnny he has done a great job when you and he both know full well he did not only confuses Johnny and does not build his self-esteem. But it does reinforce the notion in Johnny’s mind that he is the most important thing in the world. This is not a good thing and leads to the age of entitlement that we now find ourselves immersed in. Johnny is sure to be faced with immense problems and he is not likely to be the least bit interested; and if he manages to attend to those problems he will be unable to think his way through to possible solutions, because nothing much has been demanded of him throughout his school years. This has already begun to happen as any one who has paid attention to recent developments, especially in this country, can attest.

A few months ago I quoted Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel in which he tries to come to grips with the forces that have brought us to where we are at this point in history. He talks about the intelligence of the so-called “primitive” people who must daily solve practical problems in order to simply survive, while we moderns ignore those problems, convinced they are not real problems or if they are someone else will solve them. He notes in this regard that

“. . .there is a . . . reason why the New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. Modern European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American household the TV set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults. Almost all studies of child development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation. This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans.”

This observation reinforces the claims that I, along with many others, have made about the problems we will increasingly face and be unable to solve. My concern with the self-esteem movement, which in itself may seem trivial, is rooted in this same concern: how will self-absorbed minds atrophied like ours are becoming be able to deal with real-life problems of survival which are increasingly complex and pressing?

Ironically, Thomas Jefferson, of all people, characterized such minds centuries ago when he was remarking about aristocratic people, whom he held in very low regard — such people as kings and their courtiers:

“Now, take any race of animals, confine them in idleness and inaction, whether in a stye, a stable, or a stateroom, pamper them with a high diet, gratify all their sexual appetites, immerse them in  sensualities, nourish their passions, let everything bend before them, and banish whatever might lead them to think, and in a few generations they become all body and no mind. . .”

In my view this is why a good education is so important. The average person today lives the life of the kings and courtiers of Jefferson’s day. And they all have electronic toys — as was  made clear in a photo going the rounds on Facebook in which a dozen teenagers are sitting in a museum in front of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” texting. Every single one of them is attending only to the toy in his or her hands and ignoring the beauty around them — and each other. Our kids are becoming “all body and no mind” and this does not bode well for a future when these folks will be faced with problems we can only now begin to imagine.

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13 thoughts on “All Body and No Mind

  1. Hugh, excellent post, Jefferson’s quote is as compelling as they come following the New Guinea story. My oldest son was a late a couple of times for his first job out of college. We told him “everyone is replaceable,” so do not give your employer the reason to think of you that way. You show up and show up on time every day and you will be ahead in the ballgame. This is an abrupt lesson for those in that 84%, that everyone is replaceable.

    Well done sir and thanks for the shout out, BTG

    • My reply to Employers who adopted such an attitude toward my easy replication has been to time my departure to coincide with their worst possible scenario among contesting forces, and I’ve never failed to earn more yearly income throughout the decades long “ballgame” as a consequence, having enjoyed Lead or Supervisory sway in most things I laid my hands to. Today I assemble Residential and Commercial-Ag Truss for new construction (40K), hold a degree from the College of Arts and Sciences at MSU, St. Paul, have one book in print (exhibition only) with two following (Trilogy of Literary Criticism), and aim someday to lead a Mission.

      Not bad for a High School drop out, some might say.

      “Unless you become like unto one of these little children, you shall in no way enter the kingdom of heaven.”

      “Do you see the flowers and the splendor of the field? Not the likes and riches of Solomon were so well appointed, and they neither gather nor spin.”

  2. Well and good, Professor. But when we track the trajectory of American decadence in economics, literature, philosophy, and the extremities of religious bigotry, to say nothing of Art and Family, we point to at least three decades previous to a generation of ME, whose greedy enterprise has asset-stripped at the thence previous two generations of accumulated Wealth under aegis of the American Dream. In hand with their parents’ vaunted Great Generation, nothing so much resembles the audible trumpet of Decline than these in the hopes for the best of our American Experiment.

    “When you hear of your Neighbor that they have been speaking evil of your behind your back, do not be angered [or become defensive], for you know how you, yourself, have also spoken evil of them in like manner.” And, “When on your way to the Court, when any two bring a cause against another, be anxious to reconcile on your way before the Judge…[for it is an awful thing to fall into the hands of one’s just accuser].”

    A House divided…

  3. Hugh, this is another very strong blog. BTG, I managed newsrooms for a long time and, yes, I saw exactly that in some of the younger reporters on my staffs — they kind of floated on their own timetables, and in a couple cases thought that working 30 hours a week was strenuous!

    Hugh, although I share many of your worries about the paths younger folks are taking, I am more optimistic about them when it comes to climate change and more awareness of how our resources are used. Hugh, your generation and mine are the two absolute worst in history as far as abusing this planet. We’re the ones who’ve clear-cut wide swaths of rain forest, been major polluters, pumped an incredible amount of CO2 into the atmosphere and built ungodly amounts of McMansions. I’ve seen conscientiousness about the environment from people 15-30 — they are opting more and more to live in apartments or those “small houses,” and often forgo home ownership all together, they embrace public transit, really think about and act on water consumption and conservation.

    Of course, it’s probably already too late to matter. But it’s something.

    • It is something and it may be too little too late. About your larger point: I generalize. One must or (s)he cannot speak. There are obvious exceptions to those generalizations and that is a good thing. But the evidence suggests that the millennialists are even more self-occupied than their parents — and that says a great deal. And the debilitating influence of the electronic toys they are addicted to may be much worse than we thought. We are beginning to realize that they may be damaging the brains of those who use them, in addition to putting the left hemisphere of the brain to sleep. But, as you say, there are bright exceptions and perhaps it would be wise to focus attention on them — for our own peace of mind if nothing else!

      • Dana does raise good points. The generation behind is also more accepting of diversity and the rights of LGBT folks. With that said, as you note, the larger lesson of working hard and not wasting opportunity is important as well. But, we have crafted a “me first, me now” culture, where patience is not as valued as it should be. We also have created market segments out of everything, including pseudo-news, so fewer pay attention and fewer still understand the impact of what we do. Good discussion and comments. BTG

      • You’re right, Dana does make some good points — as do you. But I often wonder if the much hyped “tolerance” of the younger generation is nothing more than a thinly disguised indifference?

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