The Problem With Kids Today

Roger Ebert has gotten mighty cantankerous of late, and I love it. He’s always been one of my favorite critical thinkers, and his latest blog rant endears me to him even more.

The piece, entitled “The Gathering Dark Age,” is mostly Ebert complaining about the fact that young filmgoers are increasingly apathetic about reading reviews, which is exacerbated by the ever more insipid mass media machine that refuses the sort of intelligence and critical thinking which characterized older eras of journalism. Instead, the marketing and advertising arms of media conglomerates are setting the agenda and setting it low. With few in the media asking challenging or provocative questions of films anymore, it’s no wonder that most people under 25 have learned to consume media without the filter of critical thinking.

But it was this paragraph of Ebert’s article that particularly struck me:

“If I mention the cliché “the dumbing-down of America,” it’s only because there’s no way around it. And this dumbing-down seems more pronounced among younger Americans. It has nothing to do with higher educational or income levels. It proceeds from a lack of curiosity and, in many cases, a criminally useless system of primary and secondary education. Until a few decades ago, almost all high school graduates could read a daily newspaper. The issue today is not whether they read a daily paper, but whether they can.”

The problem with kids today is not that they aren’t motivated to be successful and/or change the world, it’s that they aren’t curious about the world. They aren’t interested in thinking critically, deliberately, and probingly about anything, unless it spells immediate pleasure and or advancement for their life. They are utilitarians in the first place, bored by any inquiry that lasts more that a few minutes or which requires more than a few Wikipedia searches.

Some people will say that this is because young people today don’t read. They don’t read newspapers, they don’t read journals or magazines, and fewer and fewer of them read books of any real depth. I’m not sure this is the source of the problem as much as it is one side effect. Media changes. If the future of media is indeed “bite sized” or visual or interactive in some way, so be it. Meaningful ideas will always find a way to be mediated, whether it’s books or films or Kindle. The real question is: will anyone be interested in ideas in the future?

The real problem—the true crisis that needs to be addressed in our lifetime—is that kids these days are raised with no enchantment of the world. They’re born into a world where every answer is at their fingertips (just a Google search away), every wonder and excitement is available on X-Box or Netflix, and little in existence is shrouded in any sort of mystery or transcendence. There’s a lot that entertains us but very little anymore that intrigues us. There is a ton of stuff that provides us pleasure but hardly anything that piques our interest.

One of the big culprits of this predicament, as Ebert noted, is the failure of our education system. Our schools are more like factories these days than they are centers of learning. They are places of standardization where students are numbers, degrees are barcodes, and ideas are merely yes or no questions on the SAT. Where are the schools that are truly interested in inspiring students to want to learn? Where are the teachers willing to model an inquisitive spirit for their pupils? They are out there, to be sure, but the system does so little to support them.

More important than systems and bureaucracies in all this, however, are families. Parents. If we want our kids to care about learning and thinking and discovering, we have to model this curiosity for them and raise them in that spirit. We have to read books to them constantly, take them to the zoo, the museum, but we also have to keep them shielded from the desensitizing, demystifying influences of mass culture. Turn off the TV. I don’t care if it’s PBS. Give your kids a paintbrush instead. Take them to the park. Show them the stars and constellations. Teach them to ask questions.

The crisis of the 21st century will not necessarily be a lack of intelligence or the inability to think. Rather, the crisis will be the lack of knowing what to think about or caring to think about anything in the first place.

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17 responses to “The Problem With Kids Today

  1. Okay, I’ll be honest: when I opened this post, I thought this was going to be a rant against Twilight, to which I was going to say, “Let’s just enjoy it, okay? There’s room for mindless fun sometimes, okay?”

    Ha.

    Instead, you totally drew me in and I appreciate very much what you’re saying here. Thanks for this. It reminds me of something I viewed recently that sums it all up quite nicely (and, unfortunately, quite horrifyingly). It’s a comic piece that juxtaposes Huxley with Orwell. You can view it here.

    Also, even though I hear what you’re saying there at the end about parents needing to turn off the TV and inspire wonder through zoo trips and painting lessons, the trouble is that the root is also in the parents. Adults (through the age of at least 50, I’d wager) are no better at this than the youth. They too would rather watch Jon and Kate Plus 8 or Dancing with the Stars or [insert your favorite reality TV show here], not to mention obsess about celebrity gossip and designer logos and Starbucks coffee. The parents cannot solve the problem if they have the problem themselves. It is much deeper than all of that. It goes to the root of who we are as human beings and what we believe about reality and our reason for existence.

  2. Today I saw a sign that read like this:

    GET IN.
    GET OUT.
    GET A JOB.

    Regrettably, this was an advertisement for a university. And if this isn’t a prime example of the pragmatic and utilitarian nature of modern education than I don’t know what is. To the extent that now schools advertise this way!

    You talk mention our schools being like factories: The terrible irony of the situation is that our entire American public school system is based entirely on the factory system of the late 19th century.

    True story: Rockefeller, Carnegie, etc. were the men who helped to fund and found the early public school system. They did so with the belief that in creating conditions that most closely resembled the conditions in their factories they would be able to raise – nay, create – workers who were prepared to work in said factories.

    From the one hour sessions to the ringing bells to the industrialized structures of the buildings, the elements of the system were based on those factories.

    In the 19-teens they tried this new system on workers in cities like Gary, Indiana, outside of Chicago. Not surprisingly, the families in those cities literally rioted. Fires broke out, there were beatings ,etc. Today this is the same system to which we are accustomed – and this is true of our private schools and christian schools too.

    This new system over-turned centuries of learning, centuries of educational theory and instead built a system of learning on utility, therefore completely ignoring the natures of ideas, thought, education in general, not to mention children themselves – and childhood.

    As someone who works in the education field for an organization that does research and consulting in education – specifically classical education – this is an important issue to me.

    Thanks for bringing it up.

    I don’t think it can be overstated enough how much of a disaster the utilitarian, pragmatic approach to modern thought and education has become.

  3. A quick plug:

    I highly recommend anyone interested in an alternative, traditional, thoroughly classical approach to education check out classical education: a paradigm built upon the reading of the great books and the liberal arts, meant to avoid specialization too soon, and meant, entirely, to open a child’s eyes to the wonder of the world – not to destroy it.

    our organization’s website is: http://www.circeinstitute.org.

    We have some great resources if anyone is interested.

  4. Thanks. Good stuff.
    This is one of the most frustrating societal issues of our day. Lack of morality, general cynicism, greed and corruption – those are all societal issues the Church has battled historically. But this problem subverts any platform for “battle.” No one’s interested.

  5. Thanks, David, for mentioning Classical Education. It is a fantastic alternative to the modern education “machine”. I thought about it while I was reading this post, and I’m glad someone mentioned it.

    What’s sad is that many students who would do well moving up Bloom’s taxonomy are kept on the bottom two levels because they are the easiest to quantify. Schools need data to justify their existence and funding. And ideas don’t get kids into college these days, unfortunately.

  6. Alec,

    This is true, regrettably. But there’s that utilitarian approach again – why are kids in school? To go to college. Why are they in college? To get a job.

    It wasn’t that long ago that people were educated so that they could become virtuous. Education was meant to feed the soul, not the wallet.

    I suppose it should come as no surprise that this transition occurred as our country shifted from the agrarian economy to a purely industrial one.

  7. Dang kids and their lack of imagination. I wish they’d get off my lawn.

    “The problem with kids today is not that they aren’t motivated to be successful and/or change the world, it’s that they aren’t curious about the world.”

    Seriously? And teenagers in the 60s were more curious? in the 20s? in the 1860s?

    I’m going to give this entire post, the thesis of which is “kids today are dumber than they used to be” a big “citation needed.”

    Ebert’s post, on the other hand, was a fairly well-reasoned critique not of young people (although, puzzlingly, he seemed to think it was), but of the media in general.

    The problem isn’t young people being dumber, it’s the mainstream media’s lack of depth. To imply that the media is dumb as a reflection of young people’s lack of depth is a false dichotomy–one doesn’t equal the other.

    Young people don’t care about mainstream media b/c the media hasn’t shown them anything worth caring about, which isn’t to say they’re not interested in anything, but rather that they’re not fufilling their interests in the same way people have in the past.

    So to measure their depth by their interest in old school media and find it lacking is a hollow measurement.

  8. I’m excited to read Ebert’s rant…I hope that this instant gratification culture and the boredom it unveils will somehow push the young generation to seek thrills and joy at the feet of Jesus in prayer and fasting, worship and praise.

    Is that too much to ask?

  9. Brett, L.A. Times Book Editor David L. Ulin, in a recent article The Lost Art of Reading, suggests that our electronic culture erodes any sort of “contemplative atmosphere” conducive to thinking. He writes, “Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know.” It’s a good piece. You should check it out.

  10. Jake,
    You stole my thunder with the “get off my lawn” crack!

    Relax, folks. Today’s kids are every bit as curious and “intrigued” as any other generation. Just look at the Harry Potter phenomenon.

    The way they’re portrayed on tv, and in movies, however, continues to degrade as taboos fall by the wayside. But don’t fall for the false reality foist upon us by the modern media.

    So don’t worry. In the words of the great R. Daltry: “The Kids are Alright.”

    In conclusion, I’d like to show my classical education by citing another great philosopher, A. E. Newman: “What? Me worry?”

    Sincerely,
    Bob

  11. Just thought I’d pop in and add that I read a post disputing Ebert’s view tonight on the Daily Dish by a guest blogger (conservative Peter Suderman), which can be read here.

  12. Really great post. I’m an occasional reader, and first time commenter. These are the things I think about most. This would be my issue. I have 3 kids, ages 8,3,2 and raising them in Hipster Williamsburg (well not the hipster side of Williamsburg, the Latino side). We’re doing our best to ride that fine line between resisting the flood of devices, mind-numbing entertainment systems and the like, but also not raise our children in a bubble of mental segregation from the community.

    It’s very tricky to find that balance. I battle the TV, but I don’t throw it away. It can be useful during moments of familial insanity. I myself was raised on TV and now it has become a lucrative career. One that has enabled me to support a family.

    I want to teach them to live a more sensual life – one that goes against the norm of constant mental stimulation – but fear that rejecting all that is popular will just create barriers between my children and their peers. They already have a great deal of bridge building to do in our community, and do so admirably.

    So there is a balance there. The most effective vehicle my wife and I have for keeping things sensual is with creative projects or spontaneous creative expression though painting or music. We have guitars, a piano, drums out in the open in the living room. We play music regularly with them and provide lots of space for drawing, painting and mess making. We’ve put lots of chips on that approach.

    Also going against the grain of the hipster family norm and raising them in the local Catholic church. Prayer is a regular part of the nightly routine. Incense and candles burn during dinner time (when we can manage to get all three to eat at the same time).

    It’s an organic strategy. One we think is working. But it’s not one that has a next phase plan. When they get older or are teens. We hope creative expression manifests as a formal interest in the arts. But here in Brooklyn, with limited budget, we pray interest in the arts and prayer can be satisfied while receiving a public education. I guess we’ll just have to have faith it will and take it a day at a time.

    thanks again.

  13. Hey Brett, keep up the thoughtful posts. Yours and Ebert’s posts are not the only ones popping up lately on this issue. One I recently read, titled “The Poetry Wars,” discussed students fighting with a professor about poetry interpretations – with students claiming that there were no better interpretations than others.

    Several of the comments on Eberts posts contain a common thread with this article and others – that students have the notion that there are no correct or better interpretations of any piece of art.

    Of course this is postmodernism in play – the relativism of beauty – but I would submit that from my own experience teaching, it seems to be getting worse. Not only are students coming in with this notion, but they get angry when their poorly supported or completely unsupported interpretations are called into question. They truly believe at some level that all opinions are equal and “to each his own” to the extreme.

    I think some of this has to do with blog/tweet/status update/wikipedia culture in which anyone can say anything and have enough people believing it as truth. “Truthiness” indeed. But the root is definitely the education system’s acceptance of a sort of bastardized pop culture form of cultural relativism (I’d argue that anthropological cultural relativism as first formulated didn’t include the argument that “all views on everything are equally valid no matter how unsupported”).

    The good thing is that most of my students, as much as they resist it, can be led to accept that arguments can be made about the quality and worth of art or an interpretation of a work’s meaning as long as it is supported properly.

    And as difficult as the assignment is for them because they’ve rarely been called to really judge art, it’s one reason I make my remedial students do a film review as one of their essays. They may not like what I pick, but they learn how to support their views on the film.

  14. Oh and by the way, an interesting tidbit – there is definitely a few generation gaps in my students’ experience of that assignment. I generally choose an older or independent film with slower pacing and more intelligent dialogue than my students are used to – 95% are watching something very different than their usual viewing.

    My students over 40 are able to watch the film I show them without too much protest and accept that it can be rated, but generally have trouble on the part where they have to think new ways about film and make a written argument. However, if there is fast dialogue, or quickly changing action, they can’t keep up. These students tend to agree that some movies are better than others, but get into trouble when they want to be “right” about their opinion. Often they can back up their arguments, but resist stating a clear thesis/opinion in their papers out of some sort of fear of taking a stand/humility.

    My students in their teens/twenties have major trouble being able to sit still and watch the film in the first place. They can keep up with faster dialogue/plot, but mostly can’t understand or stomach scenes that slow down to express beauty/meaning/characterization. They particularly have major problems with conceptualizing and carrying out the assignment – “but it’s just my opinion!,” “it was boring,” “it sucks,” “it’s just an opinion – what am I supposed to write about?” Generally, they do have a strong opinion on the film and can state a thesis (most often disliking it), but have problems supporting it.

    My students who are in their thirties seem to straddle the fence between the two groups. They tend to be the best writers of this essay because they seem to be able to watch various types of film, catch the meaning/plotting of various scenes, and are able to have an opinion/thesis AND support it.

  15. Thanks for the comments Steve! The whole “to each his own” / “any opinion is valid” mindset is truly disturbing.

  16. well i do agree that the problem with the kids are that they are not curious about world…..n the school has become factories now….the school should focus on practical knowledge rather then theoratical one….school makes the base of students….they dont hav any right to play with these innocent souls…..they should try to give them proper guidence…..

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