This is Only a Mystery if You’ve Never Met a Young American

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.

NCLB comic

Today’s young people are indoctrinated from birth to believe the following two propositions:

  1. there is nothing in life more important than “achievement;”
  2. 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).

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12 thoughts on “This is Only a Mystery if You’ve Never Met a Young American

  1. P_Ang

    Okay, I had never heard of “Chad Thundercock” before. I laughed. The page says the female version is “Stacy.” Stacy what? Thundercooch?

    Now, as a TA I never really had those problems, but as a higher ed student for six years I don’t really understand the issue with “what to write about.” How is that “giving them the answers” to the midterms? If you say “write on the Victorian imagery of Poe’s ‘fungal buttmushrooms’ and the subliminal angst carried on through the Edwardian era,” they still have to write a paper. It still should be grammatically and syntactically correct, with no spelling or punctuation errors. They still have to put thought into it. There has to be a proposition, a body and a conclusion. I don’t see how giving them the theory is also giving them the answers.
    But yes, them dang millennials!

    (PS, I never tried the “but I worked soooo hard!!” line.) I suppose that’s because if I did actually work hard I got an A. If I didn’t get an A, it was usually due to waiting until the night before to do a 15-page paper.

    1. Severian

      I used to think that way, too, but as I recall you were a student a while back….? The times they are a changin’. These days you say “write about the causes of the Civil War, like slavery” and you get back a one-sentence “essay:” “The Civil War was caused by slavery.”

      So you say “Explain how slavery caused the Civil War” and you get back “Slavery caused the Civil War because many people were against it.”

      And so on down the line. Whatever you tell them, they’ll repeat, verbatim. All their lives they’ve been trained to believe there’s The One Right Answer (TORA!), and if they just bug me enough, I’ll tell it to them, so they can write it down and get an A.

      And if I don’t tell them what it is, of course, I’m a jerk who just likes to see them suffer. It doesn’t compute when I say “there’s no ONE right answer; there are lots of right answers, and it’s the quality of your evidence and reasoning that counts.” Because, of course, there is no such thing as evidence — how could there be, when today’s “settled science” is tomorrow’s hatefact? — and reason is patriarchal. So I’m just a big meanie for not putting TORA on the powerpoint so they can copy it down, like they’ve done for the last twelve years of school.

      1. P_Ang

        Yes, I understand. I didn’t realize it was quite that bad, but I’ve run into something similar. I got the first degree, on and off from 1990-1998, with a term in the military thrown in. Because of multiple course cancellations, it ended up as a BA in English.

        Fast-forward to 2010-2012 and I worked on an AS in 3D animation and game design. I was STUNNED at the drop in the (educational?) level of students. I had always sort of put that down as the difference between a four-year uni and community college. That and the fact I was working towards a degree in game design. I can’t tell you the number of fresh-outta-high-school guys that…and I shit you not…told me they were “gonna be famous game guys.”
        “What do you mean?” I would ask. “Are you going to be a producer, director, artist, writer, QA, programmer?” “No,” they would say, (and I’m going to paraphrase the next part) “I’m going to be famous because I’m so good at video games, they’re going to recognize my raw video-game-playing abilities and I’ll be famous!”

        Now…none of them were Korean, so if you point out the fact that 1.) Their chance of even getting in the door is almost non-existant, and 2.) You actually need to work your ass off for very little pay…well, you just get that blank, open-mouthed breather stare and their eyes gloss over as they start tea-bagging opponents to the cheers of supermodels while playing levels of “Call of Duty” in their minds.

  2. Joseph Moore

    The relationship between what a student needed to learn and school was shattered once we started grouping kids by age in the 19th century. Clearly, the class trumps any other relationship and goal, as all relationships and goals are ignored when you put a 6 year old kid in 1st grade with all the other 6 year old kids regardless of what he knows and who his friends and family are. The saddest thing is that people take this for granted, even though age-segregated classroom were all but unknown before the 19th century.

    Kids start learning in kindergarten that being a member of their class is what’s important. “What grade are you in?” being a question kids meeting each other for the first time will ask within the 1st 30 seconds. Hell, adults ask that when they first meet a kid.

    So a kid, especially a reasonably smart kid, learns to ask: what do I need to do to excel *in class*? The answer: sit still, do as you’re told, do well on standardized tests, and above all don’t make a fuss!

    12-13 years of this, and you get the kids you described above. This is nothing new, although it is getting worse. Almost 40 years ago, I worked in a community college where my job was to help incoming students through the maze of signing up for classes. To me, it was this delicious smorgasboard – look at all these cool things you can study! But for every kid who had plans, even bad plans, there were a dozen who had no clue. They sometimes literally wanted me to pick out classes for them. At the same time, there was a kid written up in the college paper, who had figured the game out and was taking this insane course load. He knew to ask about & highlight what would be on the tests, ignore everything else, prep enough to crush it, then dump it and go on to the next tests. The articles were fawning – missing the point that this A student was probably learning very little. But look at those transcripts!

    1. Severian Post author

      Agreed that it’s nothing new, but even in the last 10 years there’s been a significant increase in the problem. Kids these days are absolute robots, distinguishable only as stereotypes. I can pretty much pick out what kinds of term papers I’m going to get looking out at the class on the very first day, and have my templated responses all ready….

      I wouldn’t mind that they’re all apple-polishers if they at least got something out of their apple-polishing. But it’s ALL routinized — I’m supposed to stand up there, reading The One Right Answer off my powerpoint presentation; they’re supposed to write TORA down; it’s supposed to show up in that exact way, in that exact order, on the test; everyone goes home with an A. I could accomplish the same thing by making them memorize the valid forms of the syllogism, or a list of American League batting champs, or a string of prime numbers. It’s all the same, nothing connects to anything else, and it’s unfaaaaaair! that anyone should expect it to. And that’s “education”!!!!

  3. al from da Nort

    What you describe is baffling yet I have to believe you ’cause you are right there. So it sounds like college is just extended middle school now. Thing is, most of these folks seem to turn into functioning adults after they leave college. At least I sincerely hope so, if only for the cynical purpose of social security not running out of money for the next dozen years or so that I have left.

    One possibility is that this middle school infantilism exists in everyone but it only gets socialized out of today’s students much later in life. I can vaguely remember thinking like this in middle school. But I knew very well to keep my mouth shut for fear of shaming by the teachers and derision from my contemporaries.

  4. Anonymous White Male

    I think kids today are just doing what they have always done, just with a different set of values. An instruction book for our lives doesn’t slide out of the baby chute right after us. And parents will never tell us the truth, one, because they don’t usually know it, and two, because if they did it would scare the willies out of us. They couch it around “You can do whatever you want!”, which, of course, is a lie. When we are children to young adults, we flail around trying to understand how the game works. When we find something that works for us, we stick with it. Right now, what works is to be a lemming. I know that human beings have always wanted to be accepted by others. And I think there has always been a tendency to try and fit in and do what adults expect of you. I just don’t think there has ever been a time where most young people today have completely discounted the opinion of their elders and concerned themselves primarily with the opinions of their peers. Peers that don’t know what gender they are and eat Tide Pods.

  5. Tim of the North

    S… I’ve tried several times to write a response to your last two posts. I made a living as a writer but must confess: Words fail me. This really won’t end well, will it? Now excuse me will I take some brandy to wash down a giant black pill. Tim

  6. al from da Nort

    You know, a twist to the test = hoops thing might just be the answer. What if there were hoops that let you escape to a better place if you can jump through them once successfully_?

    The soul crushing part of it right now is that it’s like Groundhog Day (the movie): There seems to be no escape, just more hoops. Oh, plus there’s the sadistic critique of whether you were enthusiastic enough about your jumping. What if, instead, you could be *done* with say, basic math, forever if you can pass a standard competency test with a minimum acceptable score or better. Once a person is, say 16, and they have sufficient competency certifications they can be *done* with high school forever. Employers would have a ready assessment of whether a person meets their hiring standards or not. Not need for a BA in whatever to be considered. *You could cut HR in half.*

    Colleges could specify which and how many certifications an entering student needed to have to matriculate. Either states or the feds could set the standards and administer the tests on a wouldn’t-matter-where-you-learned-it, open-to-all-comers basis. A relatively minor fee (a day’s work at minimum wage, for example) would likely be enough to deter the non-serious hoping to get lucky. Likely there’d be some basic level certifications required as prerequisites to sit for higher level ones.

    Basic training works like this in the military, BTW. Eight weeks at an acceptable level of performance and you’re *done*. It’s on to bigger and better things, most of which require additional training certifications, but only if you want to move up. And, after each one, you have a genuine accomplishment, new skills *plus* a certification to validate same to be proud of. And BTW, the idea of having to do basic all over again due to sub-standard performance is a really great motivator.

    Now, lest you think such a system is unworkable, impractical and would produce bad quality results in civilian life, be advised that this is *exactly* how the professional medical, accounting and financial-related fields work (and probably others I don’t know about).

    1. Severian Post author

      That’s the way I’d do it. In fact, we used to do it this way — “grades,” as in K-12, is a late 19th century invention. The Prussians, those bastards, thought it would produce docile factory hands or ready soldiers, as needed. (It worked).

      The professions, even, used to work this way. They used to call it “reading law,” for example, and there was no law school involved — you apprenticed with a practicing attorney as his gopher, reading his law books on the side, until you felt ready to take the bar exam. If you passed the bar, you were in — no paper credentials required at all. (There are fun stories of “old” law readers hanging around after the Civil War. Most clerks were in their teens, but lots of local offices had guys in their late 20s. When asked why they were still reading law at such an advanced age, they’d say things like “Well, I had a four year break commanding a cavalry company.” A hitch in the army was considered just as good, if not better, than four years of formal schooling).

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