America is in decline. Just ask a modern educator.
To be clear, this is not a commentary about anemic economic results, mounting national debt, commercial isolationism, or a lack of capital formation. It is not a statement stemming from the inevitable end of The United States’ Pax Americana, our relative decline in geopolitical muscle, or an intentional “America First” foreign policy. It is not a political statement about institutional rot or a reactionary gesture of hubris in the face of a Trump presidency.
No, my conviction that our civilization is in a steep and alarming decline emanates from a far more disturbing citadel: the modern American classroom.
Modern teachers and administrators spend their days working at the busy and significant intersection of parenting and politics, culture and entertainment. They are uniquely positioned to observe disruption and divergence, the shattering of shibboleths and the abdication of archetypes. For lack of a better word, teachers are in the “trenches” of the culture, intimately connected to the voices and values shaping our civilization for decades to come.
Although I recently entered my third decade in the classroom, almost every day of my teaching life is genuinely joyful, filled with laughter, wit, and genuine intelligence emanating from the students I teach. I’m ready to return to the classroom each fall, but must admit I am increasingly baffled by the students sitting in it.
Visit a teacher lounge, lunchroom, or education conference, however, and you are likely to hear there is a pronounced and raw sensation something is terribly wrong, something is missing in our culture, our schools, our homes, our politics — even in ourselves — that the clay from which our young people mold their lives is abnormally fluid, akin to concrete refusing to cure or a canvas left perpetually blank.
Talk to any experienced teacher in America and articles about education in large national publications tend to make us feel like clairvoyant sages, Nostradamus-like in our powers of perspicacity; what is genuinely novel and appalling to the public is often prosaic to a conventional classroom teacher who detected upsurges in “anxiety” or destructive uses of technology long before a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist chose to write a front-page story exposing it in The New York Times or The Atlantic. Almost any teacher on the front lines of the culture has had the experience of forwarding an article or screenshotting a headline to a colleague with a comment along-the-line of, “I have been saying this for years!”
Our students bear the markings of an America in decline, though it must be noted, not through any fault of their own. Those who have come before them — their parents, their cultural leaders, and yes, even their teachers — have willfully ignored the value of inherited traditions, of accepted behaviors, of knowledge that used to be called “wisdom,” of virtues that provide nourishment no matter the circumstances of one’s birth.
Our students are more likely to be outraged than inspired. They are more likely to be sexually active than romantically in love. When deciding on a college major or conceiving of a career, salary is usually paramount to the barometers of well-being or even personal meaning. They love irony, relish sarcasm, and are comfortable conversing in the idioms of digital snark or online trolls. They passionately believe in the ideals of America — often without knowing or admitting it — but find it passé or even antiquated to be particularly patriotic. They are suspicious of virtually any institution that once structured the social fabric of the culture — the church, the government, private enterprise, two-parent families, the military. Sometimes, they might even use the word “oppressive” to describe them. Their devices serve as prisms through which they experience the broader world, spending time together on digital platforms instead of parties, Facebook feeds instead of football games.
If one doubts the severity of decline, talk to the corps of American principals, administrators, and especially counselors whose work is nothing short of heroic. A generation ago their responsibilities were primarily centered on issues related to curriculum, school safety, and actual classroom instruction. Nowadays, schools are the primary providers of nutrition and meals, they are centers of activism as they attempt to shield students from the deleterious effects of violence, poverty, and pandemic drug use. They teach teens how to cope with everything from grief and anger management, to developing social skills and teen parenting strategies. It is now the professional domain of educators to confront every social pathology in a culture that has normalized violence, vulgarity, and recreational sexuality. American educators are now teaching in an era in which the many horrors that befall our students before they enter our classrooms now must be confronted and counteracted by teacher and administrator alike.
It can no longer be taken for granted that our students enter our classrooms feeling unconditionally loved at home or believe in the importance of what they learn when they come to school. A friend of mine who counsels students recently pointed out that an alarming number of students are abused or suicidal. As she said, “When I began counseling 15 years ago, it was very rare that I dealt with these issues. Maybe a couple times a year. Now, if I’m not making at least one CPS report a week or referring a student for being suicidal, I celebrate.”
Students who come to school ravaged by instability or are die hard skeptics of the utility of education make a classroom more than challenging — it becomes daunting. When denizens of dysfunction populate a classroom, our society has the destructive and tiresome habit of continually asking institutions of learning to remedy the colossal failures of the culture and country.
And just so I don’t come across as a crank, a curmudgeon, or killjoy, it is important to note that this is not a screed hurled at my students who smile easily, laugh frequently, and are perhaps the most empathetic generation in human history. They are sensitive to the many varieties of human injustice and do their heroic best to shield one another from the horrors of an unfair world. They care deeply about the planet, abhor intolerance, and seem to have a deep and abiding faith that the march of history is headed in a direction of their choosing.
They aspire to a world with no “other,” a world where the accidents of one’s birth means neither privilege nor marginalization, where a flourishing culture is fertilized by a stentorian social commitment to inclusiveness and dialogue.
They will call out bullies, hypocrites, and tormentors. They champion the global over the parochial. They would make Lincoln and Martin Luther King proud as they absolutely will not tolerate the marginalization of minorities, the gay community, or immigrants. They are not frightened of change, divergence, or abrupt innovation. On balance, they are commercially courageous and would rather start their own businesses than work for an established one with name recognition. They are frequently in a hurry and do not like to wait in line. They are neither indolent nor are they as cynical as many claim them to be.
Many of my former and current students, in fact, embody the very best of our civilization. They are spread out across the country pursuing everything from art to activism, using their freedom to advance causes they believe will make the world a better and more just place, resting their faith for the future on the sweat of their brow, passionately and universally committed to the project of social progress.
I have former students who are original cast members of the Broadway production of Hamilton, students who work hand-in-hand in Hollywood with global movie stars to advance environmental causes, students who work in the Silicon Valley with tech titans helping them with their next project, students who work in the nation’s capitol at the NSA (I think or suspect), students starting charter schools to educate disadvantaged students. I have students who have started families, devoted themselves to elderly parents, and who have become pillars of the community of their birth.
No, this is not a generation that lacks a distinctive and laudatory ethos. There is so much I admire in them. After all, they are my life’s work, my symphony, my magnum opus.
But for too many of them, the American Idea is a tired and vexing aspiration that seems to be the province of fairytales, akin to the end of a rainbow that can always be seen from afar, but never touched by the hardened fingers of reality. In the land that tells itself “everyone can succeed” and everyone can taste the splendors of the American Dream, the reality is that the main predictor of one’s socio-economic status is still the economic station of one’s parents.
For children of privilege and advantage, the signs of decline are no less alarming—young people who believe in themselves so much they refuse to use their freedom to connect themselves to institutions, relationships, and causes bigger than themselves, for fear of tethering themselves to obligations that might require sacrifices of the self. Here we witness the phenomenon of a perpetual childhood, moving home after college, delaying the inception of a career, holding the prospect of marriage and family at arm’s length for as long as possible.
An America in decline is populated by young people who stand at the acidic intersection of postmodern malaise and superficial commercialism, both of which feed, for very different reasons, the vapid need for daily doses of small titillation. Too many young people either believe they cannot succeed or fatally conflate liberty with licentiousness, forever confusing the freedom to make meaningful commitments in life with the freedom to be perpetually free of commitments altogether, forever banishing that which might make substantive demands of them.
A society that exalts individual freedom, however, cannot escape the political culpability that must accompany this specific argument of decline, for as much as freedom can certainly ennoble us, it can also debase us. Aristotle noted long ago that individual agency is contingent on the political circumstances within which a human being finds him or herself. As prominent British intellectual Terry Eagleton has accurately noted, “You cannot be brave, honorable, and generous unless you are a reasonably free agent living in the kind of political conditions which foster these virtues. Happiness or well-being is an institutional affair: it demands the kind of social and political conditions in which you are free to exercise your creative powers.”
Have our political-social conditions catalyzed our own decline? Perhaps. Yelping partisans and dogmatic ideologues, however, will be disappointed to learn that a specific political tradition is not to blame. In fact, the germ of decline might just be the very virtue that animates liberal democracy itself. Freedom is a necessary condition for self-fulfillment; and yet, it is here that one discovers the peculiar moral ecosystem within which so many of our former students live their lives, one in which traditional questions of “right or wrong,” or apprehension about finding “meaning” and “purpose” have largely been supplanted by the modern concern for a maximization of value-free choices in virtually every sphere of life—college majors, relationships, consumer goods, careers, entertainment.
The hope of parenting, teaching, and mentoring young people so that they use freedom to make “good choices” is often relaxed in modern culture as long as freedom and choice are abundant. Or to phrase it another way, there is a vacuum of authority in the lives of young people, a noticeable silence where the strident voices of adults once reigned, replaced by tepid guidance or lukewarm admonitions.
The truth is our children need the knowledge that can only be imparted by those who have braved the varying storms of life, who have used their freedom well, who can offer testimony to the idea that fulfillment and happiness are not vague metaphysical concepts but are actual, real byproducts of specific choices in life. Young Americans need to be told that high hurdles are not the same thing as insurmountable hurdles. They need to know that self-fulfillment is not synonymous with selfishness. They need to know that consuming massive amounts of moral relativism laced with latent consumerism might lead to titanic doses of amusement, but it generally does not lead to genuine joy in the long run of life.
The men and women who populate the modern American school—teachers, counselors, principals, and coaches—cannot be counted on to right every wrong or remedy every failing. It’s not fair to them. But most of all, it’s not fair to our children.