The Kids Are Alright

The kids today! They’re spoiled, ill-mannered, immature dunderheads!

If you relate to this (exaggerated) sentiment about today’s youth, you’re not alone. Ever since the first adult witnessed pubescent immaturity, great thinkers have dismissed the younger generation: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” Or so wrote Aristophanes in one of his plays.

Well, it turns out that the greatest generation didn’t defeat Hitler or invent the transistor. Today’s youth are the greatest generation. In a recent Washington Post article, David Finkelhor uses data to lay bare how great our children are. They’re less likely to commit crimes, bully others, commit suicide, engage in premarital sex, drink, and engage in risky behavior. And because of the Flynn Effect, which shows no signs of going away, each generation is smarter than the previous (at least as measured on IQ tests).

And if the world keeps doing what it’s doing, this generation’s children will be the next greatest generation.

Cameras Watching Everywhere

The valet was returning my car after I had traveled to Florida on the Amtrak AutoTrain. I asked him if I had to show him my ticket to verify whether or not Car #137 was indeed mine.

“We don’t need it. You’re being filmed.”

Like many places around the world nowadays, the Sanford, Florida, Amtrak station bristles with cameras. What do you think of the ubiquitous cameras that are filling the dark corners our world. Creepy? Invasive? Reassuring?

Even post-Snowden, I mostly embrace technologically enhanced surveillance. If I were a thief, I’d be scared $}{!+less to steal a car if I’ve been filmed from every angle. For me, loss of privacy is mostly theoretical, whereas crime deterrence is quite palpable. And if deterrence doesn’t work, the cameras will help find the jerk who stole the car.

Even though I marched against many of our wars, I don’t fear that some dark characters in the Ministry of Peace have compiled a dossier on me: I’m just not that interesting and important! A back-of-the-envelope cost-benefit analysis makes it clear to me that increased surveillance has many benefits. Have there been any major costs? Have there been victims of government surveillance?

What do you think?

Of Marshmallows and Man

There’s a fun article about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (not the Stanford Prison Experiment 🙂 ) in a recent New York Times Sunday magazine, entitled “We Didn’t Eat the Marshmallow. The Marshmallow Ate Us.”

The article is a “Riff” (their characterization; check it out) on the major finding of the study: four year olds who were able to delay gratification were more successful as adults.

While I enjoyed the article, I disagree with the author’s take. He saw the experiment as a Calvinist club to be used against the lazy and the shiftless: Not successful? That’s your fault, you don’t have self-control. (I exaggerate his conclusions. He also questions the methodology and other issues.) 

Nonetheless, I see it much more simply: self-control can help you be successful. Most worthwhile endeavors require sustained effort. No self-control, no sustained effort, no (or fewer) successful worthwhile endeavors. That seems like a pretty straightforward statement, but in my postmodern childhood, self-control was seen as something of a character flaw.

Where I grew up, people with self-control were, well, “controlled,” “uptight,” “OCD,” and “neurotic.” Those of us (and I am one of them) who had less self-control, were “free,” “uninhibited,” “fun,” “crazy,” and “happy.” Woodstock free lovin’ rock-n-roll was the ideal.

I’ve spent my professional life teaching in progressive schools in a large east coast American city. Most of the parents, in order to afford the tuition, had to delay gratification to get the piasters to pay for expensive private schools. They nonetheless paid for the “free” philosophy of progressive school, even if it contradicted in some ways their climb up the ladder for their child’s education.

Now I’m not knocking the freedom of a progressive education. But as an insider, I do think we (progressive educators) too often let the kids off the hook, like any challenge or trouble students face should be supported or accommodated. You know, self-esteem and all that. We don’t want to hurt their feelings. Too often, the child doesn’t have to “man up” when the going gets tough.

So I think that both freedom and self-control are required for success. I think there’s a false dichotomy between “free” and self-controlled. I am the type of person who says hello to any stranger and can dance on a crowded subway platform, but it takes a fair amount of focused self-control for me to…well…do almost anything. That said, whenever I marshal self-control, my uninhibited self has never disappeared. Neither freedom nor self-control is the ideal. Some kind of balance of the two is my ideal.

I once saw a movie about the sculptor Alexander Calder. Each morning he would get up, work until lunch, eat, then get back to work until dinner. No one would call the work of Calder “uptight” or “OCD,” yet his work rituals looked a bit old fashioned. “Square,” as the hep cats used to say.

Ultimately, self-control is a tool. As the untiringly creative (and obsessively focused and driven) guitarist Robert Fripp said on the back of an album cover, “Discipline is never an end in itself, only a means to an end.” Self-control can hurt if it controls you, but if it remains a tool, it is a key to the fulfillment of one’s creative, free self. Groovy.