I was reading David Brooks’ column on May 5, “The Streamlined Life,” in which he reflects on the results of UCLA survey of incoming college freshmen. An hour or so after I read the column, I was in my university’s gym locker room, overhearing an older professor lamenting the manifest failures of “the current generation.” As a member of Generation X, I hate the Millennials as much as anyone. They’re entitled, inappropriately casual, poor at grammar, and don’t seem all that concerned about maintaining the legacy of Nirvana. Plus, they can type with their thumbs much, much faster than me.
Brooks’ cites the survey’s finding that “affluence…is now tied as students’ top life goal.” I think I was supposed to read that bit, wring my hands with everyone else, and wonder why kids today have such superficial concerns. But I didn’t. What exactly did we think was going to happen? I don’t know about you, but I live in a world that worships wealthy people. In fact, I can’t think of anything else that we accept as a symbol of success other than wealth. The strength of your ideas, your contributions to society, or even your personal well-being don’t mean a thing if you don’t got that bling. If you’re entering college this year or last, you were born in the mid-90s. They’ve known nothing else but our national love affair with Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs. Innovators? Maybe. Colossal jerks? Definitely. But we celebrate them and make movies about them because they got to be disgustingly rich.
Millennials may have no real memories of the Clinton years, but I’m sure they remember the last two elections, in which nearly half the voters in the US supported a party that believes the economy should be based on the principle of “I got mine, Jack.” We expect empathy and concern from kids raised in a world where Paul Ryan and Rand Paul aren’t treated as the wild-eyed cranks they are? Since we’re mere years away from having no middle class at all, the student’s outlook is pragmatically black and white: be rich or be poor. And who the hell wants to be poor? Those people can’t even afford iPhones, much less Under Armour. I feel badly for the Millennials – it’s going to take them a few years before they figure out that the path to wealth began at birth: the path that led out from a wealthy uterus, on through an affluent birth canal and into prosperous arms meticulously toned by P90x.
David Brooks goes on to note that “today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important.” Well, of course. Why would you spend somewhere in the six figures on a college education to get something as unmarketable as a “philosophy of life?” I’ve been through a lot of job interviews, and not a single person has ever asked me what my philosophy of life is. Maybe it’s enough for them to know that I went to a small liberal arts college, so they suspect I have one. Worse, I have to admit that I don’t know what good having a philosophy of life has ever done me in a professional context. Believe me, if I could get a raise by arguing in favor of rationalism, I would. For that matter, I would take being able to end a meeting with an appeal to humanism, but I can’t see that working either. I wonder if I could have gotten some incompetent colleagues fired by sharing the wisdom of Machiavellian philosophy with a previous Executive Director.
At this point, every discussion of higher education is based around a simple transactional evaluation: get to a school with higher numbers in some ranking so you can get a job with a higher number in salary. Universities – including my own – fall over themselves trying to improve their US News rankings. Yes, ,major research institutions are worried about an index published by an otherwise defunct print magazine because of the power of their numbers. Big stories are created when some website ranks colleges with the worst return on investment, and people take this seriously. God help you if you’re a student interested in the arts or languages and literature. Those degrees don’t pay anything, dummy! Remeber when President Obama made a funny joke about Art History majors? It was especially funny coming from a guy with a BA in the lucrative area of Political Science, whose later output as an academic consisted of two books about himself.
We should push students with unprofitable interests like Art History into places like the University of Phoenix, where the transactional understanding of higher education is made explicit. Even in the non-profit education world, everyone is excited about massively open online courses (MOOCs) because you can learn the things you need to make money without having to interact with other people who might challenge your ideas, tell you flatly that you’re wrong, or steer you in a different direction. David Brooks notes that incoming freshman “rate themselves much more highly than past generations on leadership skills, writing abilities, social self-confidence and so on.” Of course they do. They’ve never encountered anybody to tell them differently, and if they’ follow their parents careful plan, they’ll never have to.
I’m not clear on what David Brooks or other hand-wringers think the problem is. This is what we trained these kids for. From the minute they were born, we made our decisions on where to live based on the test scores of the local schools and their presumed output. We’re abandoning public schools broadly, and urban public schools particularly. Everyone moved a few more highway exits out, where they swore they could still drive into the city, but never do because it’s so hard to parallel park the Canyonero. Baby Boomers and GenX traded the rich culture and socio-economic diversity of urban areas for aggregate numbers in a standardized government report and wonder why Millennials have no philosophy of life? We show them and tell them that the purpose of college is solely to get a good job, and wonder why they’re more concerned with personal gain than with their philosophy of life?
They do have a philosophy of life, and it’s the one we taught them by example after example: nothing matters but higher numbers.