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It's Harris Tweed Tuesday. . .

Continuing my single-handed fight against 'Da Frump' this chilly October morning. . .  That's a Robert Talbott Ancient Madder necktie by the way, purchased in a thrift (charity) shop several years ago before we decamped for Michigan and left the terminally brown prairies of Illinois behind for good and all.

And the lower half.  These suede Allen Edmonds brogues are surprisingly comfortable given how infrequently they are trotted out.  Perfect with a heavier pair of corduroy pants, but once we begin having accumulating snow and/or late fall-winter wet, the two pairs of suede footwear in my rotation remain safely shoe-treed on their shelves in my closet.

Still suffering from mushy brain this morning after leading graduate students, who are about to enter the academic job market, through a seminar on developing statements of teaching philosophy yesterday (Monday) afternoon.  It was a rare treat to work briefly with more focused and driven adults during the session.  The vast bulk of my working life is spent teaching undergrads, who in many instances, lack the focus and maturity of their older graduate and European counterparts.  

Don't get me wrong.  For the most part, I enjoy my work in academia.  I have been able to parlay my love of languages and, more recently, popular culture into a career, which is what I set out to do almost three decades ago.  Not everyone can say that.  But, there are also challenges and frustrations with the work, something that probably is true for most jobs.  In this particular instance, it is some of (too many of?) the students themselves.

For too many American students, the college years seem to be an extension of middle or junior high school (ages roughly 11-13) based on how they act and react to people and situations around them.  When our undergraduates are not staring pie-eyed into their iPhones that is, or whining about the need to attend classes, or trying to negotiate higher paper and project grades/characters after the fact, or they go on the warpath due solely to a perceived subtext of slights in more honest feedback than they have expected and for which they have asked in the first place.  While there are always exceptions, being proactive no longer seems to be part of their genetic make-up by and large.  

I suspect all of that has to do with the palpable sense of entitlement that now resonates just about everywhere and the fact that, beyond the credential it provides, education and the opportunity for it are not really valued in U.S. life and society.  Remember, we now live in an era when being smart, informed, and really knowing about something is dismissed, mocked, and even derided.  Intelligence is neither seen as cool, nor admired.  Turning our back on facts that stare us in the face is the preferred way of doing things from the top right on down.  

Education, when it is thought of at all, and rather than being seen as an amazing opportunity and a form of self-improvement, is instead a commodity, an automatic 'right', something to purchase, complain about, reject, and return if you are not 100% satisfied with the outcome. . .  a top grade in exchange for a typically mediocre performance.  Just like a plate of underdone pasta at one of our generic Italian chain restaurants here in the United States.  For far too many young people (and their parents), education is taken for granted, pure and simple.  Little more than a charm on a bracelet.  A box to check off on the bucket list of life.  

If you pay attention to the news media on the subject, you are aware of the discussion around the sobering prospects facing college graduates however.  In short, a degree alone is no longer a guarantee of immediate entry into a lucrative white collar  (re: managerial) position  with a spacious corner office that features an actual door at 22 or 23.  But was it ever?  Hence the profusion of baristas oozing ennui and terminally detached 20-somethings holed up in their parents' basements following graduation, stuck in a repeating cycle of Snapchat, Instagram, online gaming, Tinder, and hookup sex if we are to believe what we read.  An overdeveloped sense of entitlement, unresolved self-esteem issues, and really wicked full sleeve tattoos are not enough by themselves, however, to enter into a comfortable and productive adult life.  

There are other more necessary qualities to function and do well in the mainstream of society.  For instance, the ability to make a simple decision based on the information you have, move forward with it, and then accept responsibility for that choice regardless of outcome seems to be a thing of the past much to our collective detriment.  Moreover, the fabled can-do attitude of U.S. citizens now seems largely absent.  Instead, we have a societal and even generational obsession with celebrity and "living my dream," however far fetched and unlikely that might be.  And how many more would be sports, acting, and singing talents do we need really?  The related failure to launch has replaced getting on with things and doing the best job possible to handle whatever life might send our way.  

Having more modest, realistic expectations for oneself might be part of a solution to the problem.  That certainly ought to be part of the high school, college, or university curriculum since it does not seem like many families manage to instill this quality in their offspring anymore.  I came across an article recently online that suggested a growing deficit of tradespeople like plumbers, electricians, and similar.  The impression given by the piece was that not enough young people want to do these sorts of outwardly unglamorous, but more practical, and sometimes highly lucrative jobs anymore regardless of the apparent need for them.   

Think about it for a moment.  Already, it is rare to see young people in various part-time jobs that used to be the territory of the high school and college set -- retail cashiers, stock clerks, fast food employees, wait staff, etc. -- because the young no longer want to do these kinds of jobs.  Now, it seems to be primarily retired people on fixed incomes, immigrants, and/or the working poor who do this kind of work.  How spoiled we have become, and no wonder our society is  in the state it's in.  

However, it is jobs like these that help a young person to focus, learn responsibility better than they might have to that point, and figure out that the way forward is to get some initiative, buckle down, and adjust to the world rather than expecting the world to accommodate callow ideals and, often, sophomoric quirks.  Going to work for several years right out of high school before continuing one's education, in whatever form that might take, forces a person to grow up, take a more active role in life, and modify his or her views about perceived goals accordingly.  A few years working 40+ hours a week, earning your own money and paying your own bills provides  a fantastic education in itself, and it really helps a young person to figure out his or her priorities.  Fast.  

Contrary to so much of what we are told these days, in much of life you either sink, or swim, and I see too many undergraduates every semester who almost willingly sink regardless of the support already in place at the macro and micro levels on most college and university campuses to help keep them from doing so.  We do everything we can to ensure so called "student success" from the top down while ignoring one very simple fact.  If you wave your hands to clear away all of the dust in the air, success is still up to an individual.  A person must decide him- or herself to join the rest of society and actually participate in life.  If you refuse to do so, others cannot impose success, academic or otherwise, upon you.  In other words, you can lead a horse to water. . .

It is worth pointing out that this now lengthy essay (Can we even all it that?) is not the view of some old fuddy-duddy crank on the wrong side of 50 although it is easy to dismiss it as such, and I am sure some readers will.  Before you are carried away by righteous indignation and tune out all together, allow me to counter that this discussion is, rather, a frank assessment of a very real problem.  Let's call it rowing in circles of self-imposed irony with one oar as a metaphor for being firmly stuck between adolescence and. . .  late adolescence.  It is nothing new and was already apparent when I was an undergraduate myself close to 30 years ago sans the technological gadgetry and facial piercings of course.  The situation is more pronounced than ever before in 2018 to the point that you cannot help but notice it among the student body.

My suspicion is that the responsibility for much of this does not lie solely with young people alone, but that has its start with their parents, who, for all of the material goods, tutoring, and lessons of one kind or another that they might have thrown at their children, have done an abysmal job of teaching basic life skills, pragmatism, and a more measured self-perception to the next generation.  Sure, many undergrads seem to have over-sized egos and considerable bravado on the surface, but at the same time so many of these young adults -- because they ARE adults after all -- are medicated and/or seeing a psychologist for one reason or another if my students are anything to go by.   

Now before you ask (And, no, I do not.), many undergraduates share this kind of information voluntarily.  It almost seems to be a topic of casual conversation, for some, with people they barely know.   What is wrong with this picture?  Maybe they have little else to talk about?  As I mentioned in another recent post, so much is directly attributable to the family of origin though.  Not an easy thing to hear, and I suspect that very few analysts and the like, who specialize in family psychology and dynamics, would be that blunt, but there you are. 

To be fair, I encounter quite a few young minds each semester who manage to transcend this rather bleak characterization.  Young adults who seem well balanced and engaged with attainable goals, firm plans on how to achieve said goals, and maybe a back-up Plan B in mind, as well as a healthier world view, and a more realistic sense of themselves.  Now and again, I also see some amazing work produced by students that goes above and beyond the expectations for a particular assignment.  Clearly, quite a few of these same individuals have their ducks in a row based on our conversations.  

On the other hand, far too many students resemble the less pleasant picture I paint above.  Anxious almost to the point of stasis, if we are honest, and fearful of commitment in most forms.  Vague, tentative, clueless, aimless, emotionally fragile, and lacking in intellectual agility or resilience, they are prone to dealing with the unexpected by means of angry and obscenity-laden outbursts at whomever is most convenient.  Finally, and perhaps most troubling, so many undergrads seem like lost souls already at 21 or 22.  Many have, In the words of one senior year student with whom I spoke a week or so ago during office hours, "no earthly idea" of what they'll do after graduation.  How can this be the case after four or five years of study with, in many instances, double or even triple majors (areas of concentration and specialization) as well as the coveted internships?  

Before we place the blame for all of this on the institutions of higher learning themselves, the prospect of crushing student loan debt, and/or a bleak economic and post-graduation employment outlook, let's slow down for a minute and consider something else.  Perhaps the real answer might (just might) lie closer to home.  I'll wager, instead, that much at the root of the problem stems from the students themselves and the lack of readily discernible curiosity, drive, and direction.  We can but work with the raw material we are given.  That point is a much larger part of the problem than we collectively care to admit.  

More sobering, these self-defeating habits are firmly entrenched long before many young people ever set foot on a college or university campus.  And where does that come from?  Once again, it all starts with the family.  Needless to say, it is awfully hard to displace the kind of closed off, reactive mindset that I observe again and again with more reasoned, realistic, measured, and balanced thought, not just about the world but about one's place in it, within the typical eight semester/term sequence here in the U.S.
The contrast is stark between average U.S. undergraduates and their counterparts in other areas of the world.  In particular, when it comes to level of maturity, focus, realistic goals, and the ability to function on their own without Mom and Dad leading 'em around by the nose from first wake-up call to bedtime.  That specific difference in approach and expectation  became glaringly apparent during the two times I studied in Norway, a drinking nation largely proud of its viking past mind you.  But I digress.  

The point is, and without wishing to paint a utopian picture of Norwegian culture and society, its young adults with whom I have lived, studied, and interacted seem far more capable for the most part and much better adjusted to life with the challenges it brings by their late teens and early 20s.  Keep in mind that many students there are a few years older, they (the men at least) have their obligatory military service behind them, and many have worked for a few years before making a conscious decision to return to the classroom and embark upon a course of study lasting several years.  In short, in our own (guilt driven?) push to give our children every material whim and opportunity while at the same time bolstering their self-esteem to artificially high levels by making them the sole focus of absolutely everything, we are instead doing them a huge disservice.  And that is crippling them  when it comes to making a smooth transition from (an already extended) adolescence to a reasonably independent, flexible, and resilient adult life.   

Overindulgence, constant hovering,  and smothering involvement in virtually every aspect of our children's lives is not the way to raise functioning and capable adults, who not only are open to and willing to explore and consider new ideas in our ever-changing and increasingly connected world, but who can also meet the challenges increasingly presented by life in the 21st century without falling all to pieces and crying foul at the slightest bump in the road.  

It might be better for us to take a few steps back from 'Buddy' and 'Sweetpea.'  Let's make a conscious and concerted effort to stop infantilizing our children.  Let's stop trying to be besties with our kids.  Instead, let's get back to being Parents with all of the wonderful, as well as less than savory, images that implies.  Feed, clothe, and teach them to walk in oh, so many ways, yes.  Share in their triumphs and successes.  Provide a shoulder to cry on when they occasionally fall down.  But besides teaching them to walk, let's also teach our children to walk away by the time they reach their late teens and beyond, to stand more firmly on their own feet, and handle their own challenges, trials, and tribulations.  We're not really doing so at this point, but it would be healthier for everyone if we did.

Returning to the point at hand, yesterday's teaching statement talk itself -- more a guided brainstorming session -- went reasonably well, and was over before we knew it, but the two weeks or so of preparation and the rush of nervous adrenaline, combined with the usual challenges of family and professional life, left me feeling wiped out by 9pm Monday evening.  I conked out after a halfhearted but amusing game of Scrabble with The Grand Duchess and slept until almost 5am, a rare occurrence during the week.  Luckily, there is not much on tap for today except listening to some student-led discussions in my 10:20am Film Noir class, in which students begin discussing issues of race and ethnicity as reflected in movies like No Way Out (1950), The Well (1951), Crossfire (1947), and Border Incident (1949).  

The rest of the day should be  fairly quiet until the Young Master arrives home after school, has his snack, and we head off to his usual Tuesday afternoon appointment before returning home at suppertime and a relaxed evening following that.

-- Heinz-Ulrich


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