I've been mulling over Steve Paikin's interview with Jonathan Haidt on his book "The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,
which has been creating a minor debate amongst my online teacher circles. It's well worth watching even if, like me, you're almost certainly going to rage out at parts. It's an interesting case of being partially right and then catastrophically wrong by what I imagine is an attempt to pad several long reads into an actual book by conflating legitimate problems with people trying to solve them.
The gist is as follows: Children today (children as defined up until the early 20s, for reasons) are more anxious and fragile these days because we've sheltered them from the sorts of experiences that make them tougher. This, I agree with to a point. But it merits some unpacking: What is fragility, exactly? Is it a request for trigger warnings when encountering a depiction of violent rape in a classroom reading? Is it a protest against a transphobic speaker who has been known to publicly out trans students and target them for relentless harassment? Is it complaining online that your professors have a "liberal bias"? A male gamer's fear that feminism is taking over video games? Is it a cis person's abject terror at the thought of using the same washroom as a trans person, or a white person's unwillingness to share a water fountain or a swimming pool with a black person? I would argue that fragility has always existed in some form or another, but certain types of fragility have, traditionally, been coddled more than others, and only some are termed as such.
Then there's the question of whether kids today (and younger adults
; I have a plug-in that automatically corrects all instances of "Millennials" to "Snake People," which spares me a lot of silliness in thinkpieces) are less resilient, to which I'd say yes, but with some reservations. Are the students who I teach now more anxious than those I taught a decade ago? Yes, but I teach a very different demographic so it's hard to say for certain. Were the students I taught a decade ago more anxious than I was as a teenager? Yes, which is a m a z i n g
as I'm a pretty anxious person now
. But I can't imagine say, being anxious enough to miss months of school, knowing full well I'll fail, or not handing any work in not because I'm not capable of doing it but because my terror at this task is so overwhelming that I can't force myself to do it. But my experience is, while likely more varied than Haidt's, still quite limited, so I'm willing to listen to arguments on either side.
So, assuming that kids today are more anxious and fragile, what caused this? Haidt correctly points to overscheduling and helicopter parenting as a cause, and suggests that there are economic factors at work. So, yes, I agree that this is a problem, and it's at least a problem up to high school and based on what my friends who teach in post-secondary are saying, still a problem in college and university. But the social and economic factors at work are fairly clear here. In a shit economy where one's best chance at a decent living is post-secondary, optimizing education for post-secondary is a survival strategy. If that means that five-year-old Madison needs to be shuffled back and forth to Mandarin lessons, ballet, and hockey practice and is left with no unstructured play time in order to be competitive in a neoliberal institutional framework, her parents are going to make those sacrifices, because if they're the one family that doesn't, little Madison is fucking screwed. Where my first divergence from Haidt happens is that what about those kids whose parents can't afford those lessons? If his argument is correct, then the kids of single moms who have to work three fast-food jobs to afford an apartment in a food desert should be having better
life outcomes and less anxiety than the Park Slope kids. But of course they don't, because in both cases, the root of anxiety is economic insecurity, reinforced by race and class.
But moving on to high school, I see some evidence of moral dependency in which teachers and school administrators are absolutely complicit, but also trapped by the litigious nature of education. To use a neutral example, if my nerd friends and I wanted to play D&D at lunch, we'd just do that. We didn't need an official club or teacher supervision; we set up in the cafeteria or locker bay and did our thing. If we wanted to engage in political activism—well, we did have some clubs for that, but we primarily ran them ourselves, and they certainly weren't organized franchises like Free the Children or Me to We, complete with a binder outlining activities that the teacher could organize for us. I hardly need to tell you that this is no longer the case. I definitely see a failure to self-organize amongst my students, a focus on extracurricular activities for application-padding rather than interest, and difficulty with self-advocacy. I tend to see young people as overly dependent on adults—in my day, we were concerned about privacy, we snuck into clubs, we didn't tend to get drunk or high with our parents. This isn't all healthy behaviour, to be sure, but it did foster independence in the way that allowing children to fall off playground equipment is probably, long-run, good for them.
The other example that I can think of is in assigned readings. Several years ago, some Very Smart People declared that there was a Serious Crisis in boys' literacy. Boys weren't reading, oh no! The solution was at first to provide more graphic novels in English class (which is quite foolish, as graphic novels tend to require more literacy skills, not fewer, to analyze) and then to ensure that no book would be read in English class that was not geared specifically to young adults as a marketing category, and featuring a male protagonist to be relatable to male students. I'm exaggerating, of course, but not by very much. The idea that boys could be made to empathize with characters unlike themselves, or that they could be pushed outside of their comfort zone, was never seriously discussed.
To a degree, I buy Haidt's assertion that if an offensive speaker is booked at a university, students who are legal adults will go to the dean about it. I'm pretty sure that happens in some places. Where I differ, again, is that the problem is that students want to be protected from language and experiences that are not politically correct. The problem is actually that they'd go to the dean rather than self-organize to no-platform the offensive speaker; appeal to authority is, in fact, how we end up with strongmen politicians. Given that I see no-platforming happening more often than appealing to the administration (because, surprise, the administration is only interested in making filthy lucre) I don't think the problem of a new, somehow more dangerous wave of political correctness is actually a thing. Also, if it is, it's almost entirely sectioned off from the real world, where people of colour and trans folks can still be safely oppressed.
Speaking of which, one of his arguments towards the end, which was an objection to "Grievance Studies" and the idea that educational institutions are teaching that educational institutions are inherently oppressive is...interesting. Given that in my lifetime, the Canadian government was still kidnapping indigenous kids to be imprisoned, tortured, raped, and experimented on in residential schools suggests that, yes, all of our institutions may in fact have rotten foundations that merit interrogation, just sayin'.
All of this is not to say that I don't think fragility is a problem; I relate hard to the link about Millennial failure-to-adult above, even though I'm not a Millennial and have been spared from many of the classic Millennial problems. But I think its causes—the fact that we have less than 12 years to avert apocalyptic climate change and yet instead of going after the 100 companies responsible for 71% of carbon emissions, people are actually contemplating blotting out the sun, the fundamental dystopic natures of both the gig economy and the concept of a "jobless recovery," the global rise in fascism, the much older and more insidious neoliberal commodification and atomization of all aspects of life—are more difficult to solve than simply telling snowflakes to suck up their peanut allergies or instituting University of Chicago-style free speech policies. They involve confronting a more widespread social anxiety, one with very real causes and real consequences beyond participation trophies and overly coddled kids.