Across our college campuses, intellectual pursuit, one of the great hallmarks of higher learning, is being sacrificed so nobody’s feelings are hurt and only preapproved language is spoken. Millennial students are easily offended, acting out of emotion and magnifying perceived offenses.
Meanwhile, society at large rages through social media, a realm where indecency and vulgarity know no limits and good healthy debate is even less likely to survive. With our new technological addictions, a new mob mentality has emerged, one that is more divisive than ever and one that is making us impatient and unfulfilled.
How did it get this way and what are we missing? What values should we be focusing on to better help young people better understand and deal with the real world?
Overprotecting Our Youth
I’m convinced that one of the most important things a kid can learn is how to fall without getting hurt. Not only does it go a long way toward preventing injury, it also makes doing physical things a lot less scary and safer if you can fall without busting your ass. But it takes practice and a willingness to experience pain on occasion. You start small and work your way up. You fall down and pick yourself and fall down some more, and when something really bad happens, you’ll be glad that you had that muscle memory.
This idea can be extended to how we handle emotional adversity, and it’s here where many kids are being shortchanged. George Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have written it about beautifully in The Atlantic. Using cognitive psychology, they describe how students lack the emotional training needed to deal with things that run counter to their worldview. As a result, many overreact to alleged offenses and go to great lengths to legislate language and shame perpetrators, “creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression or worse.”
In an attempt to shield children and students from anything that could be remotely offensive, we have a generation who becomes offended at every turn and goes after anyone who is insensitive to their hypersensitivities. Not only is this bad for one’s personal psychology, it also contributes to the petty, divisive world we live in.
Lukianoff and Haidt argue we should enlist in the aid of cognitive behavioral therapy to help our students better handle uncomfortable situations. Universities and administrators are doing students a disservice by ill preparing them for a world that is far less concerned with not hurting the feelings of our young people as our academic institutions are. “The goal,” they argue, “is to minimize distorted thinking and see the world more accurately.” By teaching our youth good critical thinking skills and a better understanding of their own emotional intelligence, they can avoid letting their emotions distort their interpretation of the world.
This is further backed up by a New York Times article describing the value in teaching children “emotional agility.” The research contends that confronting emotional distress head-on rather than trying to make it go away as fast as possible allows children to handle difficult experiences better in the future. As Dr. Susan David says in the article, “Emotional skills are the bedrock of qualities like grit and resilience.” But this is not always how adults confront a child’s negative emotions.
We live in a society that caters to people’s instant gratifications, whether they’re in our technology, our medications or means of dealing with stress. If something is good, we want the quickest way to get more. If something is bad, we want the quickest way for it to disappear. Instead of using emotional pain as a teaching a tool, an experience we can grow from once an obstacle is overcome, it is covered up. We often go for the quick fix in lieu of a healthier long-term approach.
The result is a generation that has grown up shielded from the harsh realities of our world. When things don’t go their way, they launch into tirades that their omnipresent social media accounts broadcast to the world and go after anyone they deem aggressors when a healthy look in the mirror might reveal other realities.
The Value of Struggle
Of all the lies that we tell children perhaps the worst one is telling them they can be whatever they want to be without showing them how. We’ve put too much stock in telling children they can be whatever they want to be and always follow their dreams. You can’t simply wish something to be. Getting things to happen is a conglomeration of external factors, talent and hard work. Our time is better spent teaching young people these lessons instead of telling them they can be whatever they want without the requisite know-how. It should come as no surprise when some of them turn out impatient, entitled, easily offended and lacking resilience. Perhaps the better advice to teach these kids is not to follow your passion as Mike Rowe does.
There is a lot to be learned when things don’t go your way. NPR ran a report about the way cultures deal with the notion of struggle. It concluded that while American children often excel creatively, their cultural imprint leads them to think of struggle as something negative. In contrast, places like Japan and Taiwan think of struggle as a way to prove you are capable and have what it takes. In such cases, children are more willing to endure, to take the time to work things out and be rewarded when their hard work pays off. Scholarly success therefore “resides in what you do and not who you are.”
If they believe people are successful because of some innate talent, there is less motivation to work harder to obtain success. If, however, they believe that intelligence and success are products of hard work, they are more likely to persevere in times of struggle. Struggle becomes a strength and something they are more likely to do.
It seems that we are too concerned about hurting a child’s sensibilities than preparing them for the reality that is life. A healthy dose of struggle is not going to cripple them; it’s going to prepare them. It’s not to say you can’t learn hard work and discipline in other ways. Sport is one place that seems to distill these values (although there has been a pushback by some against burgeoning trends where “everyone is a winner”). Still, there needs to be a greater emphasis on teaching these values, especially in our schools.
Social Media and a Microwave Society
Social media is not the great communication device we think it is. It may keep us connected, but it doesn’t keep us together. It’s not a place where we can understand what it’s like to be in opposing shoes and build empathy. It’s a place where we stand on individual soapboxes and spout our opinions to the world. Communication like this is not reciprocal. Most of it is counterproductive garbage that has very little to do with any kind of meaningful discussion. It’s a place where intellectual pursuit cannot thrive. There are few arguments in this space that seek to advance knowledge. It’s more about advancing one’s own ideologies and proving you’re right. We aren’t connected to those who are different from us – those are the people we rail against; we are connected with those that have similar ideas, and this has created a new kind of mob mentality.
It has also created a world were people want things instantaneously and act like a bunch of spoiled, entitled brats if they don’t get what they desire, what some have dubbed a microwave society. Louis C.K. brilliantly describes the symptoms of this mentality in a bit titled “Everything’s Amazing And Nobody’s Happy.” We live in a time when technological advancement is as fast as it’s ever been and complex machines perform new and imaginative functions at astonishing rates, yet we still find fault in so much around us. “Our quick the world owes us something we knew existed five minutes ago.”
It’s a world where people pay more attention to electronics than people. We see it in how some can’t look others in the eye. We see it in our meetings, classrooms and lecture halls when people can’t refrain from their device and devote their attention to one thing. We see it in how people – both children and adults – bully each other. It’s much easier when you don’t have to see someone else’s reaction. We can be tougher. Meaner. And we see it when someone can’t turn this world off even if it’s affecting the personal relationships around him or her.
It can also be found in our social movements these days, a lot of which aren’t so much movements as they are memes. Memes are about getting hits and sparking imitation. They spread, go viral and leave an impression on society. Memes aren’t about inducing dialogue or proposing real solutions. It’s all about getting heard, and if that involves throwing a tantrum, then so be it.
Our society caters to it. We reward bad behavior by giving those who are the loudest and most obnoxious the most attention and ignore those willing to engage in a meaningful debate. Sound bites and out of context snippets are spun through snarky commentary. Serious discussion is not entertained because it’s not entertaining. Opinions are hastily formed and vehemently defended. It’s a relentless cycle of gossip, fake news, conspiracy theories and absurd accusations.
It seems as if students expect their colleges to behave like their social media groups. When our friends don’t agree with us, we speak out and block them. They want to put themselves with like-minded people, and when they can’t remove the presence of others with a simple click, they are ill equipped to deal with them.
The Good Thing about Millennials
Hopefully, this critique is not taken as an all-out affront on this generation. This is still a generation of people known for their creativity and willingness to put themselves out there. While their audacity might be misplaced at times, they’re bold, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I love the exuberance that comes from youth. Their eyes are open. They’re curious and investigating new things. They’re optimistic. It’s about the discovery. This is something older generations should not forget. This keeps us all from going stagnant.
We also must accept that generations will be different, and that difference alone is not enough to merit fault. Differences can represent strengths, just as they can represent weaknesses. Or they can simply be two things that are different in neither a good or bad way.
It should be noted that this is not merely a problem with millennials as it is the older generations who have raised them. We are all in this together, and within it all, we have lost sight of the values that once had clout in the lessons we instilled, things like patience, the importance of hard work, and the ability to listen and not act like a total bastard when things don’t go your way. It’s time to get these back.