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- Teaching in the Midst of the Corona Crisis - March 18, 2020
- Five OUTRAGEOUSLY OUTDATED Things in Modern Education - October 4, 2019
- It’s Time to Replace the Fourth of July (Kind Of) - September 17, 2019
- “SHOCKING STUDY: 40% of Modern Men & Women Are Unhappy. Here’s How Teachers Can Help” - July 30, 2019
- Chasing the Sands of Time: Why Teachers Stand High in the Stream of History - July 12, 2019
- Here’s What the Beginning of Teacher Decline Feels Like - April 9, 2019
- Three Life Lessons for Young Americans on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 86th Birthday - March 15, 2019
- FIVE Ways Modern Teachers Are Being Set Up For Failure - November 8, 2018
We’ve seen this late-night skit too many times before: young Americans being asked simple questions about American history, United States civics, or current events.
The people who are captured on camera are usually dumb-founded or give answers that make the audience and/or the questioner laugh (or cry).
I used to think it had to be difficult for these camera crews to find students who didn’t know who the Vice-President was, or who couldn’t name the “chief executive” of the federal government, or list how many amendments are in the Bill of Rights, or acknowledge that Lincoln was the president before FDR, who was president before Reagan.
But then I started to do an experiment on the first day of school.
I would show them pictures of the Speaker of the House, the Chief Justice, or their congressman. Few of the students knew who any of these people were—and I teach advanced placement and college courses! I would put up buildings—the capitol, Monticello, the Parthenon—and the projected structures would elicit shrugs and blank stares. Clearly the late night comics had a fertile population to film.
Next I would put up pictures of the Kardashian clan, Katy Perry, or Kendrick Lamar. Giggles erupted and hands would shoot up.
“Of course we know THEM,” they seem to say in concert.
Of course kids care more about movie stars and the latest Hollywood starlet. This isn’t news. Right?
But something IS different. What bothers me and many teachers across the country is not that our students are ignorant about the basic facts of their culture and country. Yes, on one level what bothers us is that our students live and breathe in a cultural orbit that permits them to become adults without prodding them to master the basics of the civilizations they are inheriting (and hopefully, perpetuating).
But the problem is more nuanced and profound. It’s not that our students don’t learn and read on their own. They most certainly do. It’s that they devote so much of their time to following the lives and actions of people who are famous without being particularly consequential. In short, they are unknowing apostles who subscribe to the cult of celebrity and all that that entails.
Too many of our students have been programmed to believe that fame, or agathos to use the ancient Greek term from the Homeric era, is the ultimate and highest achievement one can aspire to. To be “followed” on social media, “liked” when one posts, and “covered,” even in the midst life’s most frivolous moments (going to the store or getting a cup of coffee) is the hope, it seems.
The sheer act of being observed, photographed, and endlessly commented upon kindles a form of joy in our students that appears to be a new fixture of the first highly digitalized, interconnected generation of American students.
They seem to believe that the attainment of euphoric self-worth is somehow contingent on the quantity of one’s “followers,” that heroic claims of importance or significance swivel around an axel of notoriety rather than old-fashioned claims of achievement or social contribution. One’s value to the world is no longer qualitative, but stridently quantitative.
Aspiration, a call to fullness, the ascent towards that which is both authentic and inherently meaningful, a station of being in which one’s inner-angst is remedied by the certainty of one’s outer resolve, are utterly meaningless objectives to young people who believe celebrity is the goal, not the byproduct of doing something noble or grand.
Indeed, Steve Jobs is famous because he co-created Apple. Jonathan Franzen or Donna Tartt are famous because they write highly-acclaimed novels. Warren Buffet is known because he is the most successful investor in American history. Yo Yo Ma captures a slice of heaven when playing the cello.
Being famous is derivative, not primary. Their aim was the creation of new technology or literature or investment returns.