Sitting anxiously in a large lecture hall during my freshman orientation a little over a year ago, I barely listened as a history professor who looked and spoke more like a Marine drill sergeant than the cerebral academic I had always imagined went through a laundry list of items: you actually have to study in college, this isn’t high school, don’t party too much and go wild now that you’re independent. He was long-winded and uninteresting, so I tuned him out for most of the time. That is with the exception of one nugget that put the entire college experience into context for me: This is the only time in your life where your purpose is to just learn.
Students leave their families, typically paying huge sums of money, live in what would be consisted substandard arrangements in any other situation, and do it all to expand their mind – both in and outside of the classroom. And, that is why now, more than ever, higher education is important to this society.
Early childhood may be the most formative time for a human because their mind is like a sponge, with their brain growing more rapidly than at any other time. We learn languages. We begin our socialization. College, however, has just as much influence. This is the first time for many young people to live away from their families – meaning this the first time they are really separated from the strong influences families have. Once students have flown the coop, this is where that home training is put to the test. Either they have the fortitude to uphold the same views they enter with or, more likely, they begin to change. And that’s where the time of learning comes into play. On college campuses, students are surrounded by academics with depths of knowledge, classmates from varieties of background and an opportunity for the two to converge. Just as when they learned to walk and talk as a toddler, in college, as a young adult, they develop the convictions they will carry with them for the rest of their lives – into the workforce, in the voting booth, in raising their children.
Such an educating effect is very necessary, too. I am a part of what I like to call “Generation Me.” We are the children of the baby boomers who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s; the ones who came from the nuclear families with a mother stuck at home, subservient to her husband, and the father who was distant and stern. They were the ones who made the promise to never become their parents. Giving their child every opportunity imaginable as they also worked to meet their own goals.
Once the 80’s rolled around and they started having kids, now was their time to raise kids the right way. Pre-kindergarten at age 3. Extra-curricular activities counting in the dozens. SAT preparation starting in middle school, so little Johnny can get into Harvard. Video games and cell phones. Dreading telling their child no, because then they would be like their repressive and domineering parents. While doing so in the hopes of empowering their child and their future goals, parents, instead, incubated a generation of narcissism.
And college is the antidote. Sure, young people today spent years practicing and thousands of dollars just to prepare themselves to be admitted into college. I know all about it; I’m one of those people. Count everything anything remotely charitable as community service. Take a semester-long class to prepare for the SAT. (I only took it once, but many of my classmates took it nearly a half-dozen times.) Do anything within your power to make yourself look good on your college education. Prepared for admission, though, is not the same thing as prepared for college.
When the students of Generation Me start their first semester of college, they are in a scenario they never contemplated in the course of their 18-year-long lives: It’s not all about me. For the most part, you are a very small fish in a very large pond. You’re just one of thousands of people told throughout your life you are the greatest in the world who can do anything they set their mind to. And unlike Mommy, Daddy, and your high school teachers, university professors don’t care about what your feeling or don’t accept petty excuses. In fact, in order to have a whine session, you have to set an appointment to see them, because these are individuals with bigger fish to fry than the grade you got on a term paper.
From my experience as an amateur sociologist who’s a college freshman, one of two things end up happening: 1) The student is crushed. They either drop out, transfer from college to college until they find one suiting them, or they enter a state of denial, thinking all their professors are out to get them. 2) Most of the time, however, it serves as a wake-up call. “Wow,” they realize. “It’s not all about me.” Difficult of a realization as that may be, the narcissism entrenched in their psyche slowly ebbs away over time.
With that wake-up call, their eyes are opened to the big and troubled world that we live in. This is the generation that saw the terrorism of September 11, but also experienced politicians milking tragedy for political points. This generation seeing Iraq and the trouble there define what their future holds. And, this is a generation with earnest concern for the world, even such far out places as Sudan, and embraces individuals like Barack Obama in his presidential quest. And, college campuses are the places where their opinions, after such facts, are formed. Just as with past generations with Vietnam and racial tensions, the college experience will form the political trends in this country for a long time to come.
Higher education today certainly has its problems with the exorbitant cost, cutting of many young people with great potential, and as Meadow Soprano once said in an episode of The Sopranos, “College is really just a audition for graduate school.” With so many students coming into college having no idea what they want to be, college has just become high school – but with studying. Though, as that professor said in my orientation, this is the only time dedicated to just learning – and it’s a time this generation could really use.
Joel Stein’s already-much-deridedTime cover story, “The MEMEME Generation,” begins with an ostensibly self-aware but un-redeeming disclosure: “I am about to do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow,” he writes. “But I have studies! I have statistics!” he adds, with exclamation marks that call to mind Tom Wolfe, whose own “The Me Decade” covered this magazine in 1976. Stein never approaches the insight or originality of the story to which his title alludes, opting instead for a limp bait-and-switch, which Time gives away on the cover: “Millenials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live their their parents. Why they’ll save us all.”
Instead of leaving it at that tweet-size oversimplification, Stein cherry-picks silly studies, throws in a personal essay, and arrives at the same oversimplification with bonus flabby optimism (paywalled). But first, he “proves” the first part of his point: “The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older … They are fame-obsessed … And they are lazy” — insert percentages. Why?
They are the most threatening and exciting generation since the baby boomers brought about social revolution, not because they’re trying to take over the Establishment but because they’re growing up without one. The Industrial Revolution made individuals far more powerful–they could move to a city, start a business, read and form organizations. The information revolution has further empowered individuals by handing them the technology to compete against huge organizations: hackers vs. corporations, bloggers vs. newspapers, terrorists vs. nation-states, YouTube directors vs. studios, app-makers vs. entire industries. Millennials don’t need us. That’s why we’re scared ofthem.
The above section, too, echoes Wolfe, who, in taking on the “New Great Awakening,” wrote:
Wartime spending in the United States in the 1940s touched off a boom that has continued for more than 30 years. It has pumped money into every class level of the population on a scale without parallel in any country in history. […] Well, my God, the old utopian socialists of the nineteenth century—such as Saint-Simon, Owen, Fourier, and Marx—lived for the day of the liberated workingman. They foresaw a day when industrialism (Saint-Simon coined the word) would give the common man the things he needed in order to realize his potential as a human being: surplus (discretionary) income, political freedom, free time (leisure), and freedom from grindingdrudgery.
Stein eventually goes on to implicate himself, undermining the initial argument:
It’s highly possible that I’m a particularly lame 41-year-old, but still, none of these traits are new to millennials; they’ve been around at least since the Reformation, when Martin Luther told Christians they didn’t need the church to talk to God, and became more pronounced at the end of the 18th century in the Romantic period, when artists stopped using their work to celebrate God and started using it to express themselves.[…]
In fact, a lot of what counts as typical millennial behavior is how rich kids have always behaved. The Internet has democratized opportunity for many young people, giving them access and information that once belonged mostly to the wealthy.
More than 30 years ago, Wolfe wrote:
The new alchemical dream is: changing one’s personality—remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self … and observing, studying, and doting on it. (Me!) This had always been an aristocratic luxury, confined throughout most of history to the life of the courts, since only the very wealthiest classes had the free time and the surplus income to dwell upon this sweetest and vainest of pastimes. It smacked so much of vanity, in fact, that the noble folk involved in it always took care to call it quite somethingelse.
Much of the satisfaction well-born people got from what is known historically as the “chivalric tradition” was precisely that: dwelling upon Me and every delicious nuance of my conduct and personality.
Whereas Wolfe’s “Me movements” had “begun in a flood of ecstasy, achieved through LSD and other psychedelics, orgy, dancing (the New Sufi and the Hare Krishna), meditation, and psychic frenzy (the marathon encounter),” Stein runs through the obvious: participation trophies, Kardashians, and the Internet (Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook). Wolfe’s storytelling about the goopy meld of sex, religion, and self-obsession still reads as lively, while Stein, covering similar psychological terrain, is already trite. The setup is the same as its always been — What’s with these young people? — but the fun for the reader should be in connecting the dots with scene and character, Wolfe’s specialties, not Stein’s rehashed pop sociology and a hopeful quote from Tom Brokaw.
Wolfe concluded, “They’ve created the greatest age of individualism in American history! All rules are broken! The prophets are out of business! Where the Third Great Awakening will lead — who can presume to say?” Stein writes, in a similar if more sappy tone, “So, yes, we have all that data about narcissism and laziness and entitlement. But a generation’s greatness isn’t determined by data; it’s determined by how they react to the challenges that befall them.” But on generational narcissism, only one article by a self-indulgent writer stands up, and it’s the old one.