I am still in the process of getting to know my students this year.
Still, the students know that I am the teacher who just wrote a book about their generation that garnered a fair amount of attention. Being kids, most of them couldn’t care less about the content of the book. They wanted to know what it was like to be on national TV, or go on the podcasts of famous former politicians, or joust with rowdy radio hosts. Did I win a “blue check” on any of my social media accounts?
After all, I am a proud non-politician, non-pundit, non-celebrity. I have been, and will always be, a high school teacher who lives for the classroom. And yet, the question they have posed a number of times is, “What surprised you the most about the whole experience?”
I knew a torrent of vitriol pointed at my head would be a new, and frankly, dispiriting sensation. And come it did—in droves.
It is no headline that the country is currently filled with Twitter trolls, internet drifters, and digital sociopaths on social media. But what surprised me, and in retrospect, probably shouldn’t, was the rigid ideological divide in the responses I received.
Conservatives, by and large, were sympathetic and accepting of the reality of what classroom teachers have been witnessing for the past decade or so—declining mental health, accelerating levels of suicide and self-harm, debilitating loneliness and social isolation, potent political cynicism, religious illiteracy, romantic disinterest, potent consumerism, moral indifference, or even nihilism, just to name a few.
Progressive responses were largely positive, and, in many cases, profoundly thoughtful. They emphasized the extraordinary poverty so many modern students find themselves living in, the dearth of meaningful adult influences, the ameliorative role that compassionate government programs can play in giving our least advantaged students a real chance of making the most of their lives.
However, many of the progressive responses were utter, unfettered, blasé denialism. And, of course, very mean.
Every generation hates the next one. Go away Boomer!
You are just an old man howling in the wind.
This is just conservative zealotry and right-wing junk.
Somewhere along the way, simply pointing out and explaining that our young people are the most unhappy Americans in our history became a partisan or ideological act. It shouldn’t be. In June of 2020, the CDC provided information revealing that a quarter of 18-24 year olds have considered suicide. Let that sink in and then tell me this is not a uniquely worrisome generation of young people.
Last year, Harvard conducted a youth poll of 2,513 students and found that “more than half of young Americans are going through an extended period of feeling ‘down, depressed or hopeless.’”
These are not Republican talking points. There are not ideological droplets of right-wing Edmund Burke-Leo Strauss-William F. Buckley-George Will propaganda. Teachers in the trenches of the American classroom today know that there is something alarming and different going on that did not occur in previous generations. Pointing this out is not tantamount to screaming “get off my lawn.”
Of course, my theory of what is hollowing out our young people might be wrong. And my advice of how to remedy these problems might not be good advice. Fair enough.
But what is galling—even sinister—is the smug ignorance on the part of so many on the left who are willfully ignoring the reality staring us in the face.
Guess what? It isn’t compassionate to ignore the suffering of our young people. It isn’t chic to constantly stand with children and insist any notion of accountability, responsibility, or high expectations is a form of stealth oppression. Promoting a culture of constant aggrievement empowers children not to achieve but to view the world as a place unwelcoming of their talents and inner aspirations.
What does it say that merely explaining the value of a family and the joy that it can provide, or demonstrating that a good life is generally intertwined with traditional standards of moral conduct, is now reflexively dismissed as conservative balderdash?
I have a suspicion that my liberal friends are defensive of young people because, to be blunt, the left has won the culture war and our children are avatars of their unvarnished victory. If you wanted a generation that was suspicious or even hostile to religion, here it is. If you wanted a generation that actually has a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism and lacks much reverence for America’s founding generation, these are your people. If you hoped for relaxed sexual mores and potent suspicion of traditional family arrangements, young people overwhelmingly embody both viewpoints.
But here is the problem: These values aren’t leading to human fulfillment. If anything, they seem to be a titanic recipe for large quantities of youthful misery. Let’s get our heads out of the sand. Let’s acknowledge the moral, political, and social crisis plaguing our young people. Let’s not make this ideological. We adults have already failed them once.
Let’s not do it again.
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the recently-released book HOLLOWED OUT: A Warning About America’s Next Generation. He has taught civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California and is the recipient of multiple teaching awards.