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.

Barbarian Incursion

O gentlemen, the time of life is short;

To spend that shortness basely were too long,

If  life did ride upon a dial’s point,

Still ending at the arrival of an hour.

                                                                                                                                                                Shakespeare: Henry IV

Jacques Barzun, the great humanist and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, told us more than 50 years ago to lock up the treasures of the West because the barbarians were about to take over our world. He was a bit premature. It didn’t happen quite as fast as he thought it would, but it certainly has happened, though the barbarians didn’t attack from without: we bred our own. You can recognize the new barbarians all around you by their boorish behavior, the loud music emanating from their cars as they pass by and their halting speech patterns, piercings, and tattoos. They also come armed with their iPods, iPads, iTunes, iPhones, Xboxes, Walkmen, smartphones, and an occasional concealed weapon. But their takeover is not a violent one, for the most part, though it is loud and unsettling.

In any event, contrary to Barzun, I would judge that the treasures of Western civilization are probably not threatened by this takeover, because these barbarians couldn’t care less about them! The treasures will not be destroyed; they will simply wither away because the young are otherwise occupied — listening to their tunes, earphones clamped securely to their heads;  gazing at their handhelds; and generally ignoring the world around them as they focus on electronic communications with their friends. Books and works of art don’t interest them in the least. They boast of the fact: they have other fish to fry and seem to have complete confidence in themselves and their abilities to catch and fry those fish. But it is sad, because what they are unaware of is that they don’t even know where the fish are hiding or what bait to use. In any event, they will no longer pick up thick books, like George Eliot’s magnificent Daniel Deronda, where they might read this sublime passage about the need for roots and the benefits of a geographical and psychological center to our lives:

“A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as the sweet habit of the blood. At five years old, mortals are not prepared to be citizens of the world, to be stimulated by abstract nouns, to soar above preference into impartiality, and that prejudice in favor of milk with which we blindly begin is a type of the way the body and soul must get nourished at least for a time. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.”

And, irony of ironies, Eliot might have been describing one of the new barbarians when she describes her spoiled, self-involved heroine Gwendolen Harleth who, despite the havoc of Civil War across the Atlantic and the suffering of her fellow countrymen due to the loss of imported cotton, can think only of herself:

“Could there be a slenderer, more insignificant thread in human history than this consciousness of a girl, busy with her small inferences of the way in which she could make her life pleasant? — in a time, too, when ideas were with fresh vigor making armies of themselves, and the universal kinship was declaring itself fiercely: when women on the other side of the world would not mourn for the husbands and sons who died bravely in a common cause, and men stinted of bread on our side of the world heard of that willing loss and were patient: a time when the soul of man was waking to pulses which had for centuries been beating in him unfelt, until their full sum made a new life of terror or of joy.”

Indeed, it may well be that even if the young people of the present and the future had the least desire to read the elegant prose of a writer such as George Eliot (which, admittedly, takes time to read and savor), they would not understand whereof she speaks and writes. They have no idea what they are missing, which seems to be the heart of the matter. She was an eminently wise woman, but her wisdom would be lost on those who will not, or can not, listen or read her words.  It is just possible, also, that even if they did read and comprehend the meaning of her words they would have no idea what she is referring to since so many of these young people, immersed in themselves and enslaved to their digital toys, do not realize that they, too, may well lack consistency and rootedness in their lives and lack a place to call “home” — this “blessed persistence in which affection can take root.”

Climate Change and “Gen-X”

I recently read a fascinating article on the weather site. Apparently so-called “Generation X-ers”  (people born between 1961 and 1981) don’t particularly care about climate change. As the article notes,

Who is Generation X?
They’re the Americans who “grew up with MTV, Nirvana, and the dot-com bubble,” says The Atlantic. These individuals are better educated than their parents and work longer hours. They sit on their children’s school boards and are often active in their communities. “But, when it comes to climate change, Gen Xers voice a resounding ‘meh.'”

There are a number of reasons for this laissez-faire attitude apparently: information overload, economic worries, and problems with raising families, among others. But it is surprising that those in this group, most of whom are well educated — or at least schooled beyond the norm — seem to be unconcerned about an issue that should be of great concern to us all. And this is especially so since the weather news lately suggests that the problem is no longer a remote one but has arrived in our own back yards.

Social scientists have referred to this generation of young people as the “me” generation, which suggests a tendency to center their attention around themselves and their own immediate needs and wants. A number of readers who comment on my blogs seem to be “Generation X-ers” and they are almost to a person exceptions to this rule. In addition, I have two sons in this group and one of them (at least) is very concerned about what is going on around him. There are obviously Generation X-ers who care deeply about what is going on in the world, including challenges to the environment and the radical changes in the climate. But apparently, if polls are to be believed, the people I come into contact with are the exception. And this does not bode well. In order to solve a problem, we much first perceive that it is a problem. If there are growing numbers of people who ignore the problem it gives one pause.

But, one might say, there is hope among the “Generation Y-ers,” those who were born after 1981 and are now growing into their adult years and who are reputed to be deeply concerned about the world around them. Not so. A major study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which I alluded to in a blog back on March 22nd, suggest this generation, also called the “millennials,” care even less than their parents do about their world and turn their collective back on problems that demand our attention and our concern. The study reveals that, in fact, these young people are increasingly preoccupied with “money, image, and fame.” Thus the problem is compounded.

As far back as 1979 Christopher Lasch was describing our “Culture of Narcissism” in his best-selling book by that name. So the fact that many in our culture are preoccupied with themselves and their own problems is not new. These recent studies simply suggest that the problem has deep roots, perhaps even deeper than Lasch suspected. But given the fact mentioned above — that there are a number of very capable young people in these age groups — and given that preoccupation with self is natural when one is young and especially when one is trying to raise a family in a weak economy, awareness of the dangers of climate change may come eventually to these age groups. The problem seems so huge one tends to become a bit overwhelmed, especially when there are other problems close at hand that demand attention.

I would expect that when climate change begins to affect these people in the pocketbook — at the gas pump and the grocery store, they will realize that action is necessary. At that point they could become a formidable force and when the sleeping giant awakes (s)he may wreak havoc with the status quo. Let us hope so. In the meantime, the only formidable force in our nation today is the power of great wealth and for the most part the wealthy don’t give a tinker’s dam about climate change. Let us hope there is soon a resounding collision between the two forces.

The Scum Also Rises

In previous blogs I have explored the dilemma that faces anyone who hopes for real change in the political status quo. The seemingly insurmountable difficulty in effecting change is the fact that Large Wealth holds all the cards in Washington — giant corporations that the Founders simply never foresaw. Indeed, it is trivially true that money is the source of power in this country and those of us who have little or none also have little or no power. But it is true nonetheless.

The only way change can come about, it seems to me, is if large numbers of people get worked up enough to pose a threat to the possible election or reelection of one or more politicians who always hold a finger aloft to see which way the political winds blow. If a sufficient number of people are upset with the way things are going, an aspiring or incumbent politician might get worried enough to ignore the money that is always being dangled in front of them by Large Wealth. The internet could be — and indeed has been on occasion — a factor in rallying the troops back home.

But there are two keys. To begin with, there must be deep concern — enough to threaten the political future of the politician in question. Secondly, an incumbent politician must have enough power in Washington (key committee memberships, for example, friends in high places, etc.) to effect change. It is not enough for one small player in the game of politics to have a conscience; there must be widespread and general concern. Fulfilling the first of these conditions, however, seems increasingly doubtful, even with the internet.

Recent studies reveal that the Millennials (20 -30-ish), whom many regarded as our great Hope, don’t really care about things going on in the world around them — unless those things affect them directly. They don’t care that the environment is being destroyed by uncontrolled greed, for example. And these young people are not unlike their elders, it would seem. Environmental issues simply don’t rate very high on the list of concerns of most people in this country at present. Certainly not as high as the cost of gas for their cars. It would seem to follow that until or unless one can get the attention of self-involved people and rally them to a cause that they see as directly impacting their lifestyle, real change simply will not come about.

To make matters worse, those in power have learned that they can control the vast majority of those who vote by instilling fear and uncertainty and overwhelming them with double-talk that results in doubt and distrust. This drives people away from the voting booth and breeds apathy; it doesn’t lead to political change. The framers of our Constitution were optimistic that if politicians were not doing their job they would be voted out of office. One cannot read the Federalist Papers without being struck by the almost naive optimism that ran through the minds of Madison, Jay, and Hamilton. They really thought they had devised a failsafe system that would control power, weed out the weaker elements and allow the cream to rise to the top. They did not anticipate Large Wealth and apparently forgot that the scum also rises.

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.

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.