Phi Beta Cons

Today’s Generation

Carol, what a vivid and painful picture you painted of those students in Perugia. As you say, the victims include not only the girl who was murdered but the perpetrators, including the American accomplice, Amanda Knox. You extrapolate from this sordid scene to describe students today who are lacking supervision and self-direction. But I look at this generation a little differently.

For many years I have read about the deterioration — moral, ethical, academic — of today’s youth. For me, this message started with Kay Hymowitz’s 1999 book Ready or Not, but it has been reinforced from many quarters, including Mark Bauerlein’s book The Dumbest Generation. We must discount these claims a little on the grounds that one generation always has a bias against the “young’uns.” That doesn’t destroy either author’s arguments, but it should force us to be cautious. 

When I read Hymowitz’s argument that young people were lacking self-discipline and a moral compass, I found myself puzzled. I had been meeting young people who seemed admirable on virtually every scale, from academic ability to personal responsibility.

The specific group consisted of graduate students at PERC, a free-market think tank in Montana. Of course, they were a select group and their orientation toward market approaches made them somewhat unusual as graduates of American colleges. But they were also academically engaged, polite, eager to please, and grateful to be in a beautiful outdoor setting.

I wondered about the discrepancy between what I read and what I saw, and my wondering gathered force as our son (now age 22) grew up. He and his friends reflect the complexities of young people today — especially their strange desire to be immersed in constant communication from multiple sources. Their vocational orientation is more explicit than in the past, as they evince little interest in what we used to consider a classical or traditional education. Bauerlein may be right that they are more oriented to their peers and dismissive of adults. (My son, however, is properly deferential to his grandfather, who financed his education.)

Do such characteristics mean that today’s youth have lost their way? Perhaps not. Maybe they are okay — just a bit different from the previous generation.

Let me return to the sad occurrences in Perugia. Clearly, this was an aberrant group of people, with sociopathic ringleaders, no adult supervision, and unknown personal mental demons. Perhaps we should recognize that every generation has some troubled young people — and each generation will be troubled in its own way.

If I were to generalize from their behavior, I would look to the economic conditions they were living in. The economy of Europe has been stagnant for years. In such a society, jobs inevitably go to those with connections. With higher education largely provided for free, and with no particular outcome expected from college — neither enlightenment nor gainful employment — university life may postpone adulthood, fostering listless activity and providing a fertile soil for drugs and crimes. That world appears to have ensnared Amanda Knox.

Until now, we haven’t had that kind of environment in the United States, at least not for the majority of college students. In 2006, Washington Post writer Robert Samuelson acknowledged some of the weaknesses of American education but pointed out that the economy was booming. His article, “How We Dummies Succeed,” explained that the nature of the American economy enabled people who hadn’t learned a lot at school to bounce back in the face of a job loss and become productive again.

“Workers and companies develop new skills as the economy evolves,” he said. Americans’ “education” may be lacking, but they are quick to pick up “learning.” Whether through community colleges, proprietary schools, or self-help books, Samuelson wrote, “the American learning system accommodates people’s ambitions and energies . . . and helps compensate for some of the defects of the school system.”

In Italy and other European countries, that economic resilience is lacking. A society of languor — intellectual, moral, and financial — can be a breeding ground for evil, with dire consequences, as it was for the group of which Amanda Knox was a part. But in the United States, we are not there — yet.

Jane S. ShawJane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...

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