As anyone with a little bit of experience in the classroom will tell you, the university today is a far different place than it was even a decade ago. As the faculty remain the same while a new crop of students is perennially coming up, we look to the students to account for this change. And here we find stories about how students are among the most narcissistic they’ve ever been, coming to class with a sense of entitlement and a certainty about their own worth, disrespectful, distracted, and nigh unteachable.
There is certainly some truth to that, but it does not explain why the university is different. After all, there have always been rotten students. There have always been those who thought they knew everything and did not handle criticism in a mature and thoughtful manner. I don’t think that any of my teachers would say that I approached school with a sense of humility, awe-struck by the possibility of accepting the wisdom offered by professors. Still, I managed to learn, and I associate that learning with the teachers I’ve had, so I don’t think that I was unteachable. Just a bit difficult.
And when we say that Generation Me is the most self-centered, we mean that there is a higher proportion of students who think the world of themselves and cannot be persuaded otherwise, not that most students are that way. There is a mix of personality types in every group, and if 5% of one group is troublesome, while 10% of another is troublesome, we are justified in saying that the second group is far more troublesome than the first. But it is unfair to the other 90% of the second group to categorize the group as troublesome!
I am not even sure we have this much data on Generation Me’s narcissistic tendencies. Narcissism as a personality disorder is well-defined, but it is also exceedingly rare. Narcissism as laymen use the word, by contrast, is just the character flaw of loving oneself more than the speaker loves herself. For obvious reasons, the numbers on this kind of narcissism are impossible to nail down definitively. Most of the evidence for increased narcissism seems anecdotal. Have you seen what they watch on TV? Have you seen what they are willing to do on TV? Have you seen how that kid flipped out when his three and a half pages of bullshit earned him an F rather than a gentleman’s B? This generation doesn’t have to be more narcissistic in order for it to seem more narcissistic. We as a society highlight and reward sick individuals more than we ever have, and so they are more visible than ever before. This is especially true at elite universities, whose insanely competitive admissions processes seem assured to persuade their students that they are almost godlike in the rareness of their special gifts.
There are very strong arguments that an excess of self-esteem makes one unable to learn and leads to unhappiness overall. These are great reasons not to fall for the unconditional-praise mantra about parenting, remembering always that a mantra is something chanted repeatedly in order to empty the mind of critical thought. It is worth stating these arguments. Students with self-esteem issues are unteachable, and I do not want to minimize this fact.
Learning Bruises the Ego
There is a kind of self-love that we recognize is empty when we see it in other people, the kind of self-love that lies at the root of vanity. It is the kind of self-love that seeks justification in the good opinion that others have of us, and finds no less pleasure in a flattering reputation just because it is built upon our contrived deceit. We lie to others about our abilities so that we can believe the lie ourselves, and find reinforcement for our egos in the fact that we’ve duped others into thinking we are worth something more than we are. This sort of self-love is so grotesque that we are certain that there must be another, calmer, quieter confidence that has nothing in common with it—two ways to love oneself.
The mantra about the importance of self-esteem does not distinguish between these loves. Praise builds up our vanity. It rewards us by persuading us of our worth by pointing to how others rate us. We are told to avoid criticism lest we burst the bubble of a child’s self-image. (“Constructive” criticism, as something distinct from criticism, simply, is not criticism at all.) Yet when we ask about the benefits of self-esteem, they involve a different kind of self-love, namely, confidence in the face of difficulty. We don’t sin against vanity, and indeed encourage it, in the hopes of fostering pride. It is telling that the sort of confidence to be bolstered comes from an opinion that one can succeed because one has succeeded before, rather than the knowledge of what failure tastes like and that losing face is not so unbearable that one should avoid risking it altogether. The idea is that the opinion we have our ourselves based on other people’s praise can be internalized to the extent that we no longer need to care about that praise. If the two types of self-love really are distinct, then this transformation is of course impossible. What is certain is that this transformation is not guaranteed, and if some people can turn their vanity into virtue, most do not. Most remain stuck upon the good opinion that others have of them, unable to love themselves if not loved by others. This sort of person is the more likely outcome of an education afraid to tell children they are wrong lest they never build the confidence necessary to risk being wrong.
It is certainly the case that vanity stands in the way of learning. The more important the subject, the more likely it is that we cannot admit ignorance of it. People are willing to admit that they don’t know a lot about Egypt’s Middle Kingdom or quantum mechanics, but everyone is dead certain that they know right from wrong. Those who try to persuade them that they are confused about morality get to drink hemlock. Before one can learn, one must believe that there is something to learn. This requires acknowledging that one is ignorant. The pain of ignorance can be so great that it spurs one to learn. This love of learning is not really a love of wisdom, insofar as the latter looks to uncover all the ways in which one is still ignorant, but it does at least lead to learning. Some of the time.
This is only what is required in order to learn. In order to learn from somebody else, one must be able to take criticism, accept it as true, and change. If a paper comes back with the comment that you need to pay more attention to how you phrase things if you want your thoughts to be cogent, your reaction cannot be that the teacher nit-picked over your diction. At the very least, you cannot sustain this reaction. This requires a level of emotional maturity that does not always come with age, and certainly does not come with a high school diploma.
There are two ways to avoid the sting of ignorance. One is to cease being ignorant. The other is to paper over one’s ignorance. Given the choice, most people choose the latter option. People learn when they are forced to, that is, when they cannot deny that they do not know what they need to know, either to live a life well or not to be inferior to their neighbor in some respect. After all, attempting to soothe the pain of ignorance by learning just reveals more things about which you’re ignorant—it’s a vicious cycle of learning to not feel ignorant, followed by even greater feelings of ignorance! No wonder that people abandon their childlike love of learning after a while. Children can be compelled to do what is good for them by their parents, but their parents are already grown up, and children eventually become adults. Vanity is permitted to have its natural effects. The vainer the person, the earlier they learn to disdain everyone else as an idiot who fails to agree with them.
I would not be surprised to find that there are more such people in college today than there were before. I have certainly had some in my classes. But I have also met distinguished elder scholars who suffer from the same defect. If anything, I meet more academics who are closed to learning that I meet students who are unteachable, which is saying something, considering that I meet many more students on the whole than I meet people with doctorates. Scholasticus puer robustus. A part of me wonders just how many complaints about today’s students’ unwillingness to learn stem from students’ unwillingness to be deferential toward a graybeard with nothing to teach. I can defer to researchers who say that there are more narcissistic students today than there were before. Still, the unreasonable levels of self-esteem in some of today’s students is not to blame for the decline of university standards.
Pedagogical Side Effects of Non-Pedagogical Decisions
The world has always been full of rotten people, just as it has always been full of saints. Institutions can affect the proportions of various personality types, pushing someone people to express one side of themselves who might have been defined by a different aspect of their nature, but it is not as though different ways of rearing children would eliminate a personality type from the population altogether. Nor does everyone who is stamped with the same educational mold turn out identically.
But while there have always been people so vain that they cannot learn, they have not always been in a position to set the tone for the entire education system. People tend to choose to conceal their ignorance from themselves rather than to learn when they have a choice: systematic, compulsory education is about denying them that choice. Learn or fail. Given what learning entails, this imperative translates to, swallow your pride or fail. Whining about how “unfair” your teacher is will get you nowhere. You will instead stand exposed as a whiner, and a dumb one, at that. The fact that the meritocracy passes you over will garner you no sympathy. You will be free to spend the rest of you life in bitterness, telling everyone who will listen that the system is rigged, but you will not be permitted to squat in the socio-economic space that by rights belongs to someone else who was willing to learn or to prevent others from learning.
What is different about this generation of students is not so much that they are more narcissistic, but that those who are are rewarded and pandered to as never before. Even if twice as many students are unteachable as there were in the past, they are still a decided minority. But just as proportional representation reinforces the power of fringe parties rather than giving the majority the greatest say in policy, the minority that cannot take criticism determines outcomes.
There was never a decision taken by higher education officials to pander to the lowest common denominator. I say this certain of the capacity for self-delusion among even the most highly promoted college administrators. Everyone is convinced that they bend rather than break, that they preserve their core values as they compromise.
Yet we end up pandering. We release students from the constraints that formerly enabled their professors to compel conformity to the expectations we have of college graduates. Seeing that some students do not need the structure of a core curriculum, we permit everyone to evade classes that they don’t like. It turns out that any class I can’t get an A in just isn’t essential to my education. Worried that some students who fail out have been failed by us, we do whatever it takes to keep students enrolled. Because the only way to identify a bad teacher (without actually watching them) is to trust to student evaluations, we assume that student evaluations are trustworthy. We cannot prevent those who are unprepared for college from failing, and we cannot retain students who transfer to a better institution: we can improve retention almost exclusively regarding those students who would otherwise say “whatever” as the door hit them on the way out. These are the students who set the tone.
When (some) students receive a bad grade, they tune out. They can do this because tuning in is not required for any goal they wish to achieve. Fail to learn the material, and you can still get a college degree. Fail a course and you can petition to have the grade changed. The most progressive schools permit you to erase past grades by retaking a class with a different professor, even if you failed for academic dishonesty. (I’ve seen students do this.) Learn or fail is not an imperative when failure is not an option, and we have decided that failure cannot be an option.
And this in turn permits everyone to tune out. In order not to offend the vainest students, we remove all incentives that keep other students focused. Those who would conform to expectations no longer have to. The expectations have been changed. They now conform to different expectations. It is not a character flaw when today’s students no longer act as students. We have told them to act like consumers. The whole “what would you do for a Klondike bar” ad campaign falls flat if each spot opens with the mark forking over some cash.
The worst thing that can be said about bureaucracy is that it enables people with the souls of bureaucrats to be themselves—and encourages others to be like them. The emphasis on self-esteem no doubt increases the number of young people who are defined more by vanity than by self-love, but it is not to blame for the current woes in higher education. Rather, if students seem unteachable, it is because we have structured their incentives toward being unteachable. This is a betrayal of those students who wish to be taught.