Commentary Magazine

Are the Kids Alright? We Have No Idea

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A surprising number of my acquaintances have precocious children. On social media, I have seen ninety-nine variations of “my six-year-old and I were watching the State of the Union together, when she turned to me with a wry yet melancholy smile and asked, ‘Daddy, has no one taught that poor fellow about structural racism?”

It’s wonderful when our children repeat what they hear from us and our like-minded peers.

We are now seeing this dynamic play out in connection with some of the survivors of Parkland school shooting. The New York Times just ran a representative piece, “Are Today’s Teenagers Better and Smarter Than We Think?” The article identifies a disagreement between researchers like Jean Twenge, who worry that overprotective parenting, among other things, has left millennials unprepared for independence and adversity, and other researchers, like Wendy Mogel, who find our young, on the whole “courageous, energetic, optimistic and really smart.”

Tara Parker Pope, the author of the Times piece, suggests that we have an important new data point that might settle this quarrel: high school students on TV who agree with us! That is to say, the most visible survivors of the Parkland shooting that want stricter gun control, just like the overwhelming majority of Pope’s readers do. These kids might just be, as one expert commented, the “generation that we look back on and end up calling one of the greatest.”

This observation is not a swipe at the left. There is something tiresome about idolizing the young, but then, some on the right are busily comparing the Parkland group—except for the one or two who have diverged from their classmates—to brownshirts. Being distasteful is a bipartisan pastime.

In my field—education—such sloppy thinking is deployed to decide how best to teach our students. “Deliver knowledge in small doses: Ten minutes is as long as you’ll be able to hold a Millennial’s interest.” Meanwhile, desperate businesses are hiring high-paid generational consultants to learn that their younger employees “expect work to be meaningful”; “crave frequent feedback”; and “despise voice mail.”

There is some serious research being conducted on millennials, but it is hard to know much about a generation even from careful survey research. In Generation on a Tightrope, Arthur Levine and Dianne Dean looked closely at undergraduates enrolled in college from 2009 to 2014 and found that they were not much interested in campus activism. A massive wave of campus activism followed almost immediately. That doesn’t mean Levine and Dean’s snapshot wasn’t accurate. It does mean that, even in the unlikely event that generations have natures that unfold over the course of their history, it’s not likely that we’ll have a good handle on it, even from careful research, much less our observations of the representatives of one Florida school district whom we happen to see on TV or have in our Twitter feeds.

It’s understandable for advocates of any given social policy to seize on the young in the hope of demonstrating that their policy preferences are on the right side of history. Likewise, it’s the nature of counter-propagandists to respond either by disparaging the young or claiming that the young are puppets. To feign shock in response to this dynamic is like complaining about gambling at Rick’s.

But we can expect better from journalists, who should be skeptical, and intellectuals, who should be scornful.

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