Solipsism generation

Call me a grumpy old man. (I've been called worse.) But I fear it isn't going to be easy for David Coleman and his fellow authors of the Common Core English/Language Arts standards to wean U.S. students off writing about themselves, their feelings, and their experiences and onto forming judgments based on evidence in the texts that they're reading. Switching over their teachers—especially those under thirty—may prove just as difficult.

We seem to be raising an entire generation of young Americans who are completely centered on themselves rather than what we might term "the work to be done."

The smart and well-respected head of a major philanthropy mentioned the other day that way too many of the young people working—or seeking to work—at his organization are vastly more interested in "what it means for them" than in the job itself. As in, "Is it meeting my needs? Am I getting the growth I need? The recognition I'm due? The mentoring I want? The compensation I deserve? The time off that I'm entitled to?" and NOT as in, "I'm here to do an important professional job for an organization whose mission I believe in, and I'll give it my all."

We don't run into that much at Fordham, fortunately—at least, those who may harbor such feelings of self-absorption keep them bottled up or share them with others rather than me. (Perhaps they can divine how unmoved I would be.) But I do find this attitude, this mindset, all the time in young people who enter my life from other directions, even including some relatives.

Kim Kardashian
Whence cometh these solipsistic tendencies?
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

That it’s less visible in those over thirty suggests that it might be something that people outgrow along with acne. But what if it's deep-set in those born after, say, 1980, and won't ever go away? In any case, its present victims include plenty of schoolteachers charged with converting their pupils to objective, analytic writing.

Let's be clear: If a young person is completely preoccupied with his or her own feelings and life experiences, teachers—even those over fifty—are going to have a heavy lift getting such a student to focus on (say) the epic struggle for leadership between Ralph and Jack in Lord of the Flies, rather than their feelings about the situation, or on the sources of Atticus Finch's willingness to defend Tom Robinson (in To Kill a Mockingbird), instead of their own opinions of racism.

Whence cometh these solipsistic tendencies? I can't be sure, but I suspect that a big part of it arises from celebrity culture with its glorification of individuals rather than actual accomplishments. This reaches its apogee, of course, with those denizens of People magazine who are occasionally described as "famous for being famous" (think Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian), but it's almost as true of movie stars, rock stars, and sports stars.

Nor are People and its imitators the only sources of this. It's all over television (now in such odd realms as cooking!) and has even crept into the august pages of the New York Times. Check out that newspaper's "Styles" section, now available on both Thursday and Sunday, and you will discover that nearly every article is either about a celebrity or is a first-person account of a personal experience.

Consider this opening paragraph of the latest weekly "Modern Love" column:

When my ex-husband called, four months after our divorce, to tell me he was getting married, I laughed. That he was marrying an old friend, a woman who had been a guest in our home, struck me as the final ironic gesture in a relationship that had been, from the first, predicated on well-meaning but doomed intentions.

No, this is not Jane Austen. It's about oneself—true confessions by the author based upon her own life experience and feelings. How can a young person who even wants to continue reading such a self-pitying confessional end up writing about anything save him- or herself?

Good luck, Common Core. It's going to be a long slog.

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