Progressives Own the Teens

January 22, 2020 Updated: January 28, 2020


Remember these lines from the song in “The Sound of Music”?

“Climb every mountain,
Ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow,
Till you find your dream.”

That’s the mother abbess of the convent telling the young Maria that she must leave them now and begin her sojourn through life. It’s an inspiring message, we’re supposed to believe, an exhortation to treat life as a challenge and an experiment.

It’s also something a nun would never, ever say. Obedient Catholics would tell her to preserve her faith in God, not trust all in herself. In a secular and prosperous age, though, “Go for it, girl!” counts as standard guidance.

We hear it all the time. It was at the root of the old Army recruitment ad from the ’80s, “Be all you can be!” which urged youths, “You’re reaching deep inside you / For things you’ve never known,” and talked more about individual flowering than country and service.

And there was the Nike commercial in 2018 with Colin Kaepernick, which begins, “If people say your dreams are crazy, if they laugh at what you think you can do, good, because calling a dream ‘crazy’ is not an insult—it’s a compliment.”

Think about that encouragement. Don’t listen to others, it says, pay no mind to the naysayers, especially, one assumes, the elders, who’ve already curbed their vision and settled into routine.

This is progressivism for teens, a there-are-no-limits-to-YOU flattery that the adolescent ego gobbles up like Clif Bars. It’s the opposite of conservative wisdom, which starts with the premise of finitude and prudence. Progressives tell them that dreams are the stuff of fulfillment; conservatives warn them that dreams can destroy as well as create.

Which counsel do the kids prefer, the pleasure principle of the progressives or the reality principle of the conservatives? It’s no contest. They want to hear what Obi-wan Kenobi says to his protege as he pilots his craft in battle—”Luke, trust your feelings”—not the line from Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

A few years back, in a lecture to 3,000 students at Wake Forest University, I skipped the inspiration and went straight to a rebuke, ordering them to drop their phones, close their Facebook pages, and read more books, learn more history, improve their tastes, and be alone for a critical period every day. After three minutes, every face in the hall was dour and glum. What a downer it was. They expected to hear more of what the fellow who preceded me at the podium said.

He was a 20-something guy, bouncy and cheery, striding around the stage in an untucked button-down shirt, skinny jeans, and Converse shoes. The theme was simple: “Follow your dream!” Each one of them had a dream, he declared, and it must be cherished and pursued. Then, he proceeded with his own story. (I’m recalling this from memory—I didn’t write it down at the time.)

His dream, when he was in college, was this: to be a contestant on The Price Is Right. He loved the show, and he idolized the host, Bob Barker. He cared so much about it that one summer, he and a buddy loaded up a car and drove across the country to Los Angeles to work their way into the audience. His friends and family back home laughed at him, but he wouldn’t be dissuaded.

He lined up for the show, filed into the auditorium, and lo and behold! was called to compete. “Come on down!” We know it happened because he showed a video of the episode, our ebullient young man popping up on the screen with Mr. Barker, breathless and excited, but ready to play.

The video ended happily, the students cheered, and he beamed at them. After a pause, he instructed them to reach under their cushions. Before he spoke, it turned out, he had attached a rubber band to every seat bottom, and all the students were able to pluck them off and, at his command, attach them to their wrists.

“Now,” he announced, “all of you, keep this band on your wrist, and whenever you begin to doubt your dream, whenever you think of stopping, I want you to stretch it out and let it go.” At this, he raised his own arm, brandished the band around his wrist, drew it back tight, and let it snap. “Ouch!” he cried. “Do it, do it now,” he yelled. The whole crowd went ahead, and their collective “Ow!” mixed with laughter and shouts as he strode off the stage.

Then I took my turn, ramping up the killjoy effect because of what I’d seen.

I couldn’t help it. This follow-your-dream fantasy has caused too much damage for it to be ignored.

The middle school boys who skip math homework because they want to work on their jump shot and actually believe they have a shot at the NBA if they put in two to three hours a day on the court are 999 times out of 1,000 deluded. The high school girl who dreams of becoming a YouTube star and spends the evening watching videos and filming her own doesn’t take the time to read the newspaper, volunteer at church, or learn a foreign language—and finds in her first year of college that she’s badly unprepared.

Dreams are tricky; the dreams of a 15-year-old are downright hazardous. The progressive message of respect for dreams feeds these budding egos, though; the conservative message of skepticism pleases none of them. This is why popular culture leans so far on the progressive side, and why the youth vote went 2-to-1 for the Democrats.

This is a daunting challenge for conservatives. The old institutions that taught youths some realism about their prospects have either faded in influence (churches) or been converted to the dream outlook (schools). With young Americans surrounded by more progressive media than ever before, they can proceed well into adulthood believing in those dreams.

And when those dreams don’t pan out, when the kids haven’t become music producers, internet entrepreneurs, and famous individuals, they can believe that something is wrong with the world itself, not with their expectations.

This is the root of a lot of social justice passions among millennials, for whom existing injustice is a displacement of personal disappointments.

Conservatives better find a way to answer the dream factories that classrooms, websites, movies, social media, and music have become, or the permanent Democratic majority that liberal commentators have been expecting for 20 years will finally become a reality.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory College. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, TLS, and Chronicle of Higher Education.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.