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What Are Students Thinking? Part II: Cause for Concern

This post is one part of many in a series on student thinking in our current American culture. Yesterday I covered some positive signs/trends that I’m seeing. Today will be the first in several posts detailing some concerns...the “canary in the coalmine,” if you will. Most kids are thoroughly modern selves. This is how they’ve been formed by pretty much everything, not just their schooling, and they’ve imbibed the lessons well. This describes both Christians and non-Christians, almost to the same degree.

Most American kids are highly individualistic, but are highly conformist at the same time. This is something that is true of pretty much any age at any time in history, but certain things in our own day make this an especially acute problem now that hits our young especially hard (ie, screen technology exacerbates the volume of the echo in the echo chamber).

On the surface it appears like these two things--a high degree of individualism and conformism --don’t really go together, but when you pause to really dig in, you’ll see they actually complement each other quite nicely. More on this--their high degree of conformism and how it goes hand-in-hand with their individualism--in a future blog post.

Their individualism is not a healthy individualism--the individualism of the Declaration, the individualism of MLK jr’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther’s refusal to recant, the individual that keeps his head while everyone else around is losing theirs, as Kipling writes. The students’ individualism is one that is committed, over and above everything else, to the self and its unrestrained expression. A few recent thinkers like Carl Trueman, Rod Dreher, and Alan Jacobs have been able to articulate this worldview really well. Trueman calls it Expressive Individualism. Alan Jacobs calls it “Metaphysical Capitalism.” Basically, almost all students embrace the idea that “I am my own.” You define yourself: period, full stop. Nothing else defines you but you. It’s the “you do you” mentality; “don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something;” “you can do whatever you want as long as you put your mind to it;” way of thinking. They are deeply committed to this. It is axiomatic. Jacobs puts it like this: “I am a commodity wholly owned and operated by myself in service to my own interests, as defined by me. Therefore, the socio-political order is to be evaluated strictly in terms of whether it helps or hinders my autonomy.” Secondly, and similarly, this individualism sees meaning and identity as found not by looking up or looking to something external like community, but wholly by looking within, and living authentically means expressing this identity/meaning, as well as liberating yourself from any limitation or categorization--whether ideological, physical, social, or legal--that hinders you from fully expressing this identity. Lastly, institutions and communities are good to the degree that they enable the individual to express who they are on the inside. This message is everywhere, including in church, and kids have picked up on it pretty well. This is the Disney worldview; our kids have been raised on Disney! Admit it: the Mouse is a ubiquitous culture maker. Almost every single Disney/Pixar movie--even the ones that we adore because of their supposedly great, family friendly messages, like Frozen and The Incredibles, are variations of the same theme: a beleaguered and put upon individual has desires, interests, and dreams that are out of step with larger society, whether that be their family, their town, etc. So the whole movie is their journey of liberation from the traditional, stodgy, judgmental expectations and categories of others, and the larger society’s gradual awakening to the need to let go of their limiting notions and accept the protagonist’s unique identity. I mean, there is room for those sorts of realizations and stories, but the point here is that this is the constant drum beat in Disney movies, and so this is the kids narrative, the lens through which they see life, to the exclusion of almost everything else. To point to just one example: have you ever thought about the lyrics to the song “Let it Go”? I know that sounds funny, but pay attention to how ridiculously individualistic they are….it’s “expressive individualism” concentrated: the fears that once controlled me can't get to me at all

It's time to see what I can do

To test the limits and break through

No right, no wrong, no rules for me

I'm free That’s just one stanza. The whole song is like that! We tend to easily miss the import of the lyrics because they express what we ourselves believe as adults! That’s part of the problem--we, too, are expressive individualists, so we don’t balk at it from the culture.

A future blog post will be devoted to stories from my class discussions that illustrate this (and other) trends I’m seeing, but for now, here’s one demonstrative example:

Before each unit in my philosophy classes, I have students take an anonymous survey prior to the unit, and they take it again after the unit. I do this to gauge if their thinking evolves/changes as a result of class content and discussion. Today’s survey asked them to agree/disagree on a scale of 1 to 10 with the following statement:

“Each individual determines their own identity by looking within and finding their own truth. The most authentic life is embracing and expressing this identity/truth. Seek to escape from external limiting restrictions forces. Others should be respectful by treating you in such a way that acknowledges this identity (which includes language).”

Over 90% of my students agreed strongly, 7-10. No one scaled below a 5. When asked to gauge their level of confidence in their belief (1=not confident at all; 10=supremely confident), 77% displayed a high degree of confidence, 7-10.

Of course, this is a convenience sample, and very small. About as unscientific as it gets. Still, I think it accurately reflects what’s in the air.

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