Why is narcissism increasing among young Americans?”, a very very concerned therapist asks in Psychology Today. You can read the bit if you want to savor some canned hypotheses: lack of play, intense competition, self-esteem culture. But since life is short, and my experience with young Americans is long, I’ll just tell you: It’s the hoops.
Today’s young people are indoctrinated from birth to believe the following two propositions:
- there is nothing in life more important than “achievement;”
- achievement is simply a matter of jumping through hoops
Every time I assign a paper in class, the most common phrase out of students’ mouths before the due date is: “so you want me to say that ____.” After graded papers are handed back, the most common phrase is: “But I worked so hard!!!”
They don’t see anything wrong with either of them. They really do come to my office hours, in ever-increasing numbers, to ask me what to write on their midterms. When I point out that they’re effectively asking me to give them the answer — thus defeating the purpose of a “test” — they give me blank looks. They’re not acting. Kids these days are oppressively, monomaniacally literal — they can’t act. They genuinely don’t get it.
Nor do they get it when I point out that not all efforts are successful. “But I worked so hard!!!” is a description of a behavior, not an outcome. If hard work always worked, I’d be in the Major Leagues right now, because nobody ever worked harder than me at hitting a curveball. Alas, I lacked talent. They can’t process that, either. They’re convinced that results are always proportional to effort.
And the sad thing — the reason “narcissism”* is on the rise among young Americans — is that they’re right, for a specific value of “effort.” You can get anything you want in the American educational system; it’s just a question of how far you’re willing to go.
Start at the base of the victim pyramid. Every educator in America, K-thru-PhD, knows We Do NOT Fail the Blacks. The Blacks know it too, I assure you. Then there’s the females. A female student with less than an A, is a female student who will be in tears in your office right after class, wailing how you ruined her life because she tried soooo haaaarrddd!! and she’s already been accepted to law school (sadly, I believe this part) and now it’s ruined! Before you tell me to man up and just flunk the bitch, please google “Jackie Coakley“. Also “Mattress Girl.” You think #MeToo is gonna end with with Hollywood? Academia is full of dorky, pathetic, unsocialized guys, surrounded by pretty girls who obviously want something from those dorky, pathetic, unsocialized guys. Student loan default isn’t going to pop the higher ed bubble; hashtags will. Give the ladies what they want… and for God’s sake keep your door wiiiiiide open and talk VERY LOUD while you do it.
And so on down the line. And yes, even Chad Thundercock has a way out — he’s a paying customer; Mr. and Mrs. Thundercock are determined to get their money’s worth for their little snowflake. If the Dean fires me, there are 5000 other fools in grad school right now who’d be happy to replace me, working twice the hours for half the pay. If Chad Thundercock fails out, there’s less money to fund research sabbaticals. They’re all mouth-frothing Marxists, these ivory tower types, but they’re ruthless enough capitalists to give Gordon Gekko wood when it comes to their own paychecks. So Chad gets an A, too.
See what I mean? Success — the most important thing in the world — depends only on how well you whine. No wonder they’re all narcissists.
*”Narcissism” isn’t really what we think it is. We tend to think of a narcissist as grandiose, which is actually a separate (though often comorbid) pathology. “Narcissism” is best defined as “seeing yourself as the star of your own personal movie.” See here for lots of great insight (be prepared to lose yourself on that site for a few days).