Two months ago, I reported on the declining emotional resilience of college students. I summarized the claims, made by college mental-health personnel throughout the country, that students are having emotional breakdowns at much higher rates than in the past. I also addressed professors’ claims that students feel more pressure to get high grades and are more prone to blame professors and/or react emotionally if they don’t receive those grades than students of the past. The post apparently struck a nerve: It quickly amassed more than 650,000 views, more than 200,000 Facebook likes, hundreds of comments, and many requests for interviews and media appearances. I found some of this attention embarrassing, as some of it seemed to arise more from a desire to blame young people as spoiled and entitled than from a sincere desire to understand their suffering and what we, as a society, might do about it.
I followed that article with another in which I summarized research that college students whose parents are highly intrusive, controlling, and over-protective are especially prone to emotional difficulties and maladaptive feelings of entitlement. These results are at least consistent with the view that increased “helicopter parenting” is one of the causes of the decline in young adults’ resilience. Far fewer people read the second article than the first, and some who did were skeptical of the research—perhaps, to some degree, appropriately so. They complained that the research, and my article, seemed to feed into a knee-jerk tendency to blame parents for young people’s problems.
In my opinion, it is rarely if ever useful to blame any particular individuals or groups for widespread social problems. If large numbers of people act in certain problematic ways, there are social explanations for why they do so. The route to solving the problem is to identify those forces and try to alter them. I am not interested in blaming students, parents, teachers, or anyone else. I am interested in understanding what is happening, and why, and what we as individuals and as a society can do to improve the situation.
To further my own thinking about the decline in resilience of young people, and to view it from several perspectives, I spent the better part of two days reading and thinking about the comments that people made on my first article. I read carefully the first 150 or more. Where possible, I categorized them as coming from (a) teachers in primary or secondary schools; (b) professors and other college personnel; (c) employers writing about experiences hiring recent graduates; (d) parents writing primarily about their own experiences with their children; and (e) college students describing their own experiences or those of their peers. Most of the commenters agreed with the basic claims of the article, but the different groups had different ways of viewing and explaining the problem.
Primary and secondary school teachers were remarkably consistent in their view of the problem. Most contended, often emphatically, that they had difficulty holding students accountable for their schoolwork, or lack of it, because of the interference of parents and administrators, with the result that students failed to learn to take responsibility for their own work or how to deal with disappointment when they performed poorly. Parents, they claimed, increasingly want to know all the details of assignments and grading, so they (the parents) can do all they can to make sure their child gets a high grade. Parents are taking the responsibility for keeping up with schoolwork that, in the past, was the students’ responsibility. They claimed that some parents—especially those of students in honors and AP classes—become irate if their children bring home anything less than an A. They then complain to the principal or superintendent if the teacher doesn’t find a way to raise the grade. The teachers wrote about the pressure to give As to everyone in the honors and AP classes so as to avoid conflicts with parents and help the students get into college. Schools and administrators look good if many students go on to college, especially elite ones, which helps explain the pressure to give an A even when a student (in the teacher’s view) doesn’t deserve it. So these teachers were not surprised that the students went to college ill-prepared to take responsibility for their own work and expecting professors to bend over backward to help them get high grades. At the other end of the spectrum, teachers also wrote about pressures from administrators to pass students who do no work at all, because the school gets a bad rating when students fail. Here are some representative quotations:
College professors and other college personnel generally claimed that they had seen increases in students’ anxiety and in the degree to which students tend to blame professors for low grades, expect to be able to re-take tests and re-do papers, and expect explicit, point-by-point instructions about what they must do to get higher grades. Several of the commenters were adjunct professors—people who aren’t part of the regular faculty but are hired part-time for low pay to teach courses. They noted that adjuncts teach many of the basic courses (courses the regular faculty don’t want to teach) and are particularly vulnerable to student criticism because they are generally hired and re-hired on the basis of student evaluations of their courses. And students who get low grades tend to give low evaluations. Here are two sample quotations:
The employers in the sample nearly all claimed, usually emphatically, that they had witnessed reduced resilience and an increased sense of entitlement in young employees. They talked about new employees’ inability to accept or respond appropriately to constructive criticism, and their beliefs that they should almost immediately get promotions and higher pay, even if they were doing the bare minimum of what the job required. If they got poor evaluations, according to the employers, they complained that the employers had not made the expectations sufficiently clear. Here are two quotes from employers:
The parents in the sample, not surprisingly, mostly expressed satisfaction that they themselves had resisted the social pressure to hover over their children. Unlike other parents they knew, they had refrained from intervening in their children’s school affairs and had allowed them to learn from the consequences of their own mistakes. Some had children who were now in college or beyond, and they were proud to see how well their children were coping with independence. Many of these parents wrote compellingly of the pressures—from relatives, neighbors, school personnel, and even sometimes from police and child protective services—to hover and intervene in their children’s lives more than they believed was healthy. Some, however, also wrote of the pressures that the school system and colleges put on students for high grades and perfect résumés, pressures that, in turn, lead parents to do everything they can to promote their children’s success. Here are some representative quotations from parents:
The students’ responses were most interesting to me. They, not surprisingly, were the most likely to be angry about the original article and many of the comments on it, because they perceived the article and comments as blaming them for weakness. They generally agreed that young people are anxious and depressed and often terrified by the prospect of failure. But most made it clear that, in their view, if we are pointing fingers, we should be pointing them at the established adult generation—including not just parents but also high-school teachers, college professors and other personnel, and employers. They also blamed the recession and the high cost of college—and some blamed the greed of the older generation for those. The students felt they had been born into a socioeconomic world that is far more competitive and less forgiving than the world of their parents or grandparents, a world in which failure is “not an option.” Here are some quotations from college students and one from a high school student:
The problems that young people face and the distress they feel are not new; nor is the tendency of the older generation to see the younger generation as less gritty than themselves. But there is ample, objective evidence that, in fact, adolescents and young adults are suffering from emotional problems at much higher rates than was true in past decades. (For some of that evidence, see here.) Many of the commenters, especially the teachers, view the problem as one of spoiling young people by not holding them accountable for their schoolwork. But I see it differently, more along the lines expressed by many of the student commenters. Everyone is way too concerned about grades and this concern is depriving young people of the freedom they need for true education.
There is good reason to believe that much of the increased suffering of young people comes from the increased weight and senselessness of schooling. Young people are spending more time than ever in school, going through ever more meaningless hoops. The concern for high test scores and grades is enormous; the concern for real, authentic learning is almost absent. Students are so busy preparing for tests and pursuing grades that they have little time to delve into anything that truly interests them, and little time for real learning. When one is constantly pursuing extrinsic ends and has little time to find and pursue intrinsic interests, life feels empty.
The school establishment, and the politicians behind it, act as if all young people must be on a college track for success in today’s economy, when, truth be told, young people actually learn little in college that helps them prepare for jobs or for adult life. There are, in fact, many ways to make a good living today without college, and many college graduates end up taking jobs that they could have gone into without college. Students increasingly view their whole educational career as a long, almost endless, series of hoops to jump through. Students and parents learn from the constant propaganda that college—and maybe even graduate school—is essential for a satisfying adult life, and that these will be shut off for them if they don’t achieve high grades all along the way. Our increasingly absurd educational system is driving many students crazy.
Given all this concern about grades and doing what the system seems to demand, it is fascinating to me how well young people do who choose an entirely different route to education. I am referring here to those who opt out of conventional schooling and choose a route of self-directed education—a route in which there are no forced tests, grades, or imposed curricula, but where students pursue their own interests, in their own ways. Elsewhere, I have presented evidence that young people whose families deliberately choose “unschooling,” or who attend democratic schools where students are responsible for their own education, are doing very well in our culture. (See, for examples, my book Free to Learn, and this blog post or this article.) They are doing well emotionally, socially, and financially. The idea that success in our culture requires young people to go through all of those hoops is a myth. The sooner we dispel that myth, the better.
And now, what do you think? How do you explain the declining resilience of college students and what social changes would you encourage to improve the mental well-being of young people? I invite you to share your thoughts and questions in the comments section below. This blog is, among other things, a forum for discussion. As always, I prefer if you post your comments and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions if I think I have something worth saying. Of course, if you have something to say that applies only to you and me, then send me an email.
For much more on how education can be joyous and meaningful rather than boring and anxiety provoking, see Free to Learn.