We Are the 47%!

2012 July 25
by Carl Watson

An article in a recent New Yorker discusses a number of books recently published that treat of the topic of the failure to grow up in modern America. In “Why are American kids so spoiled?” Elizabeth Kolbert compares the 6-year-old child of the Matsigenka tribe to modern day children from Los Angeles and Paris. The Matsigenka girl accompanies Kolbert’s river expedition and, without being asked, voluntarily sweeps the sleeping mats, stacks the leaves for house-building, fishes, cleans and cooks food and generally remains quiet and well-behaved. Kolbert then compares this child’s behavior to Los Angeles children of the same age and older who had to be begged to attempt the simplest tasks: and who still refused. The California kids often would not take a bath unless bribed and some would not even tie their own shoes. Kolbert writes:

“With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent ythe most indulged young people in thye history of the world. It’s not just that they been given unpredented amounts of stuff—clothes, toys, cameras, skis, computers, televisions, cell phones, PlayStations, iPods … They’ve also been granted unprecedented authority. ‘Parents want their kids approval, a reversal of the past ideal of children striving for their parent’s approval.’”

Do we have parents?

Kolbert is commenting on a number of recent books that address this very “American” problem: The Price of Priviledge, The Narcissism Epidemic, A Nation of Wimps. I say American problem because she contrasts American kids to French kids (yes, the hated French) with whom she went to social events, such as house parties and dinners. The French kids seem to be able to sit quietly through a long dinner without raising a fuss, and they gladly help out in the kitchen, even cooking for themselves, on their own volition. American kids at the exact same events, cried, threw food, and continuously demanded attention. Because our children are so spoiled, it is Kolbert’s contention that Americans have raised a generation of “adultescents” who never grow up, a generation embodied in such phrases as “40 is the new 20”.

I wonder if I have any messages?

This is especially true in consumerist cities like New York where it is completely possible to run into full-grown men and women who go to work on skateboards and razr scooters.  You might see these same adults twiddling away with some fun video game as they race off to meet with their little pals at the corner bistro, or to see a band play their favorite fun music.

Most New Yorkers a special pride in that fact that they have no basic survival skills: calling an electrician to replace a light bulb, as the cliché goes. A friend of mine (French) once remarked that no one in New York has anything in their refrigerator except condiments. That’s because they don’t know how to cook, or at least they would rather have someone else do this for them. (Foody culture has changed this helplessness to some degree).  Such perpetual adolescence is encouraged, probably because adolescence is the age most susceptible to marketing.  “Buy these new things, kids—be hip and the other kids will like you.” (It’s important to be liked, we all know). Of course, we also know the goal of Capitalism is exactly that—a culture of perpetual adolescence (the period of highest consumption) so it just makes sense.

While I found Kolbert’s article fascinating, I did not find it surprising at all, having witnessed many children in Manhattan, Brooklyn and various suburbs who seem to have virtually everything they could possibly want, though this does not preclude them from wanting more. The question arises: is this really a good thing, psychologically or socially.  Parents, of course, may rightly contend that the children NEED these things if they are to function in the modern world. But I suspect that, in some degree, need is being equated with want, i.e. because you want it, you find a logic that claims you need it. This was especially true when normal reasonable people had to come up with excuses for their new cell phones. “My niece really needs to get in touch with me,” was one I heard a lot.

There is another co-incident trend happening and that is in the educational system. This is not a problem that can be solved by litigation, even though American parents are known for suing schools if the kids don’t get A’s. Such lawsuits ignore the fact that maybe their kids are no capable of getting A’s. The chronicling and critiquing of the ineptitude of American education is nothing new and that ineptitude is something that is getting worse not better. Anyone who is a teacher in the American school system, especially middle school or undergraduate university understands that this is not a minor issue.

Books Like Rudolf Franz Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read, or William Kirkpatrick’s Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong or Jane M. Healy’s Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think—and What We Can Do About It. The later contians With chapter titles such as: “Sagging Syntax, Sloppy Semantics and Fuzzy Thinking,” and “Sesame Street and the Death of Reading.” From these we can see that Healy’s main focus is 1) the relationship of language proficiency and critical thought capability, and 2) the tendency of modern education to enforce a kind of detrimental educational model under the guise of progressive pedagogy.

Healy addresses the detrimental effects of electronic media, combined with modern education techniques, which effectively teach kids not to think, by redefining thinking in terms of mere information collecting. In other words, thought is something that happens elsewhere and we merely need to access it. Thought is something you gather, you collect, hold, or let go of when you don’t want it.

The answer has to be here somewhere.

Healy cites a poll that shows that 90% of NYC 5th graders when asked, admitted to reading less than 4 minutes a day outside of class, while at the same time watching an average of 130 minutes of TV. But outside reading is less the issue than in-class reading, and, as the latest test scores from NYC show, only 47% of NYC school children can pass their level-appropriate reading exams. When such grim facts are put to the public, the general reaction is defensive: “Don’t blame the kids!  It’s the teacher’s fault.”  Bloomberg definitely believes this. Politicians have to believe this because they have to produce statistics that show things are getting better on their watch. But there’s blame to be shared all around, from parents to teachers to students. If people wonder why today’s students cannot learn, it may well be because, as Kolbert has suggested, they have been treated like little kids all the way through high school and even in college. It’s not their fault: the latest pedagogy has it, and so they must be relieved of any responsibility for learning on their own. They must be treated like children, infantilized and made to feel that they in fact never have to grow up or think for themselves. Since most lower and even middle class parents have to have two or three jobs to survive, and since many of these parents are quite fascinated with their own egos and careers, teachers are now expected to be parents to their students, sitting down with them individually for endless hours of counseling and cajoling. School has become therapy, but the one thing that is not happening is education. So, if Johnny can’t read or write or hold a job, at least he can shop for iPhones online, which is all we really want Johnny to do, anyway.

I remember a line from a vampire movie in which the scion of an 19th New Orleans landowning family, remembering when he was fifteen, says—Times were different then, I was a man and had many responsibilities. Yes, well that was a vampire movie. But the same is true of all media, the last land where kids are really adults.  In fact, if you watch TV or movies you see grade school and high school kids dealing like adults with adult problems. In fact, on TV even grade-schoolers are full adults with their own businesses and sex lives and parents who are barely around. Sometimes they are even involved with world events. There seems to be a disconnect then between the representation of young people in the media and young people in real life. Perhaps this representation of child-adults is a partial cause of the regress. The absolution of responsibility via the media. If TV kids can be viewed as “real” then they have an actual affect on the world, making it possible for “real” kids to say “Let the TV kids do it, I just want to play with this here fun device.” Entertainment culture, of course, caters to the lowest common denominator, which, of course, is the child’s supposed need to be entertained (which is actually an invented need).

Maybe there is no such thing as modern childhood, in the old sense. Indeed childhood is an invention of the leisure class in the industrial age, and may well be a fetishization of the loss of innocence of rural, agrarian and communal life. It may also be a reaction against the Dickensian brutalization of the young that the industrial revolution wrought. For the most part however, until the baby boom, childhood was limited to the pre-teens. And in most parts of the world it still is. In America childhood really never ends. Disneyland after all is for adults more than kids.

The idea of the special child, the child as precocious intellect, close to raw genius, is handed down to us from the Romantic and Victorian era, products no doubt of the birth of the middle class. Americans today, also worship at the altar of the precious “romantic” child (although this meme is very often a political and consumerist tool). Modern yuppie culture has taken childhood to an extreme, indeed until it is very nearly one half of life. Childhood is a special time of magic and fun and bands and games, and we should never let go of this fun. Besides the economy might collapse if we give up on the fun. Our children are special, and we need to devote one hundred percent of our time to their pleasure and their needs. Kolbert cites Levine: “Being special takes hard work and can’t be trusted to children. Hence the exhausting cycle of constantly monitoring their work and performance. Which in turn makes children feel less competent and confident, so they need even more oversight.”

More stuff! We want more!

Williamsburg and most of NYC is full of these special over-indulged children, many of whom are the sons and daughters of equally special over-indulged children in an ongoing genetic reproduction of specialness. One is forced to wonder: if everyone is special, then specialness is really commonality, and nothing is gained except a homogeneity in which to “think different” as the Gap’s khaki and Apple’s iPad ads extort, is, in fact, to think the same, subscribe, buy in, vote for the dictator who tells you what a special little guy or gal you are, the world is all about you— Special little Jimmy and Special Jane. You deserve everything your special hearts demand.

A recent NPR investigation asked why so many Korean families are sending their kids to American schools and the answer would surprise you. Because the schools are easier! They have to be. In one Washington State high school it is required that the student must write an 8-page paper and present a ten minute oral report before graduating. One student’s parent hired a lawyer to contest these stringent educational demands. An 8-page paper!

Back in the bad old 70s, I had to write a 15-20 page research paper with proper footnotes, etc. to graduate from high school. Whoah! That is just way too much work for today’s special kids. In fact, we regularly graduate young adults from college with BA and BS degrees (and, god forbid, MAs) who cannot do this simple task. The Chinese, the Indians, even the Columbians are laughing at us. America—the greatest country on earth (for making money).

But wait, there’s good news from Mayor Bloomberg! 47% of NYC kids have recently passed their English proficiency exams. That’s almost 50%!

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