The following is an excerpt from the newly released paperback edition of Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation (August 2022, Regnery Publishing).
In 20I7, I wrote an article asking whether teachers “have a front row seat to American decline.” I noted that when teachers get together to discuss education, they have a common complaint: young Americans are “hollowed out.” It is not just that many students can’t recognize America’s leading politicians; it’s not just that they lack knowledge that you might expect them to have; it’s not just that they appear to have no interest in acquiring wisdom. That would be bad enough, but it goes far deeper, and is far more worrying. They seem bereft of an understanding of what it means to be fully human.
What do I mean by that? I mean that they seem mysteriously barren of the behaviors, values, and hopes from which human beings have traditionally found higher meaning, grand purpose, or even simple contentment—and little that is worthwhile has filled this vacancy.
The kids are not entirely, or even mainly, at fault. Those who came before them—their parents, cultural leaders, political leaders, and, yes, educators—were too often accomplices in letting these same values, virtues, traditions, and aspirations slip away, assuming that somehow their loss would be made good later or that they really didn’t matter after all or that they were hindrances that should be willfully ignored. Rather than setting “high expectations” for students, we settled for “understanding” them.
Unfortunately, high expectations were often not being instilled at home or in church or in other institutions either. Laxity can be culturally contagious. But high expectations are necessary for young people to mature into responsible adults; they set a framework and offer guidance. Without those benchmarks, there is something of great significance that goes missing—and we see it now in our students. There is little yearning among them to be fully rounded individuals— intellectually, culturally, morally, spiritually—little interest in cultivating fallow ambition, little urgency to become a responsible adult. The lights are on, the students are at home—and they don’t particularly want to go anywhere.
In terms of economics and technology, they are, on a global-historical scale, wealthy. Yet they are utterly destitute in the realm of what we might call “human flourishing”—fulfilling the timeless aspirations and deepest yearnings of the human soul: to love, to know, to honor, to serve, to lead. What is missing in our students implies that something is missing in our homes, in our culture, in our politics, and in our country. What I and many of my fellow teachers see in our classrooms is a culture that has gone terribly wrong. It portends nothing less than a generational crisis.
In Cicero’s An Essay on Old Age, Cato is quoted as having said, “Those indeed who have no internal resource of happiness, will find themselves uneasy in every stage of life.”
My worry is that a great many people today, especially our students, lack the “internal resources” to provide for their own long-term happiness and contentment. A few examples that form an unhappy picture: many students today show little interest in getting married or starting families; children are anathema to the students’ ubiquitous environmental puritanism—and their equally ubiquitous self-absorption. Many refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance, even labeling it “vaguely fascistic”; they snicker outright at the very notion of patriotism. Their view of America is nihilistic and myopic— and nihilism is not generally a healthy state of mind. They are shockingly ignorant about the world’s major religions and stridently secular in their morality, and they assign little value to the “great books” of Western civilization or to Western liberal values or to the Judeo-Christian tradition; this, too, is part of their nihilism. They live largely solitary lives, inextricably connected to their phones but largely disconnected from parents, churches, and communities.
Instead, they eat alone, they study alone, they even socialize alone in a virtual world untethered to the physical. They are often friendless and depressed, which explains why they harm themselves and commit suicide at a rate unrivaled in American history—a history, incidentally, that they see as a sordid tale of endless oppression and sprawling injustices. They are sympathetic to the icono-clasm, anarchism, violence, and ritualistic self-loathing on display in the streets of Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, Baltimore, New York, and elsewhere. They raise suspicious eyebrows at any attempt to defend or explain the achievements of Thomas Jefferson or the heroes of the Civil War (about whom they usually know nothing).
In sum, they are disdainful of any knowledge beyond their computer screens and alienated from the values, aspirations, institutions, and commitments that traditionally define “growing up.” Older generations might remark on this generation’s immaturity, its absorption with thoughts and desires unworthy of a serious life—and they’d be right.
Unfortunately, the COVID crisis of 2020—with its mandated
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