What concerned me as much as my students’ disdain for their teachers, though, was the quality of their writing. Potential ideas lay dormant and undeveloped on the page; basic rules of grammar and punctuation went unheeded; logic was all but absent. After reading that first round of essays, I began annoying my friends with dire, unprovoked brooding on the dismal state of high school education in this country. More than one friend warned me against committing what I have come to call the Breakfast Club fallacy. In that flawed, but seminal, ’80s high school film, the assistant principal is complaining to Janitor Carl that the kids have changed, gone bad, turned on him. “Bullshit,” replies Carl. “The kids haven’t changed. You have.” That’s the Breakfast Club fallacy: the kids aren’t getting worse; I’m just getting older and more cantankerous.
Maybe so. My own high school was hardly a proving ground for intellectual inquiry. Still, I’m concerned, and for the same reasons that led George Orwell to write the essay “Politics and the English Language”: bad writing leads to bad thinking, and vice versa; uncritical acceptance of others’ prejudices can lead to people marching around with signs displaying Hitler mustaches on an African-American president. In fact, the entire faith we put in democracy as a form of governance rests on the fragile assumption that, in the realm of free and open debate, conscientious thought will more often than not carry the day. And that assumption, as Thomas Jefferson saw more clearly than the other founding fathers, rests in turn on a viable system of public education.
At the risk of generalizing, it seems to me that two of the more serious problems afflicting American adolescents today are the fear of not fitting in and an astonishing lack of curiosity about the world beyond their cell phones. Popular culture instills high levels of passivity among its most vulnerable targets, the young. There is, to take one pervasive example, not a single item for sale at my local mall that asks the consumer to do something, make something, or master a skill (the store that sold telescopes and chess sets recently closed). Yet American teenagers have on average one hundred dollars a week of disposable income, which they typically spend at the mall. What they consume helps them adopt an easy, off-the-rack persona, but it does little to cultivate real self-invention, the unfolding of one’s nature that Emerson called the “chief end of man.” This passive shaping of the self leads, I think, to a flimsy narcissism that results in a lack of curiosity about the world outside the self: real life.
Isn’t a “fear of not fitting in” more or less universal? Do most adults ever outgrow it? Have adolescents in particular ever been immune to to it? Aren’t there a fair number of people for whom a world of constant entertainment and shiny gadgets would represent the ne plus ultra of human existence? Is the Jeffersonian vision of pure, rationally informed democracy just as much of a naïve pipe dream as his vision of America as a loose confederation of agrarian states defended by citizen militias?
Well. These are all perceptive queries, and I congratulate myself for asking them. But I’d merely like to state for now that even I, misanthrope that I am, don’t see any added reason to fear for the human race in general, let alone Western culture, American culture, however else you choose to subdivide it. The majority of people, whether due to the limitations of genetics or social class, have always been stupid and unreflective. With seven billion people on the planet, there’s simply a lot more of them to notice and despair over.