I’ve read a couple of “kids these days” pieces lately. One was Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which I read as preparation for a lecture on the Culture Wars and the reception of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987, 1991, 2006). I wonder if Bloom’s book is the first of the modern “kids these days” genre. Reading it some 30 years later after it was published, I felt much more kinship with Bloom’s students than with Bloom, who complains that his students don’t love books enough, and that they listen to too much Rock music (“even while studying”!). I suppose this much is unsurprising, considering that I was a first-year college student in 1993, so I am of the generation (Gen X) that so disappointed Bloom (although he’s also disappointed in Baby Boomers).
Now Gen X-ers are writing their own “kids these days” pieces; the one I read most recently was written by John McWhorter and published in the Atlantic: “The Virtue Signalers Won’t Change the World.” There’s a lot to like about McWhorter’s piece, and in many ways he’s sympathetic to the values of the people he’s criticizing. But for all of its sensitivity, it becomes surprisingly reductive as it draws to a close. For instance:
The new normal is, “If you don’t like it, cry loudly and then louder, because you’re always right and they’re just bad.”
And, in the final paragraph:
All of the above hinges on feigning claims of injury, on magnifying indignation in a trip-wire fashion, and on fostering a Manichaean, us-versus-the-pigs perspective on humanity out of Lord of the Flies.
Maybe McWhorter knows students like this at Columbia, but I find it totally alien to my own experience (at the University of Colorado since 2014, and before that at the University of Toronto from 2008). I can’t imagine my students “feigning…injury.”* They tend to think that some ideas are good and others are bad, but they’re not actually invested in an “us-versus-the-pigs perspective.” They’re careful and critical interpreters of modern media and of the ancient texts that we read together. As I read McWhorter’s piece, I started to doubt that he teaches many students at all; but I think that he does. And so it made me wonder how our perceptions of our students could be so different. Maybe our students really are different.
In his Classics, the Culture Wars, and Beyond (2016), Eric Adler suggests that “The Closing of the American Mind must be considered one of the most improbable best-selling books in American history” (19), and I suspect that the success of Bloom’s book, and others like it, explains the popularity of “kids these days” pieces. You get attention, and if you’re lucky a position at a well-funded think-tank, by writing such things about your students. (Incidentally, I wonder how McWhorter’s students feel about the fact that he compared their worldview to the spirit of Lord of the Flies; I also am trying to picture myself thinking this of my students – “you know, the way y’all think really reminds me of Lord of the Flies, a book in which one boy murders another kid and tortures some other kids” – and still cheerfully going to class every day). You don’t get on the New York Times best-seller list, however, for writing about the kids these days that sure, they’re different from us, but they’re all right.
* Maybe my English is bad but “feigning claims of injury” makes no sense… one feigns an injury or claims an injury that is feigned, but “feigning claims of injury” means something other than what McWhorter must mean. On a second read, I wondered if ‘feigning’ was an participle (rather than a gerund) modifying ‘claims’ but that should be ‘feigned’ (or maybe ‘claims feigning injury’???) but that can’t work because of the structure of the sentence:
All of the above hinges
- on feigning claims of injury,
- on magnifying indignation in a trip-wire fashion,
- and on fostering a Manichaean, us-versus-the-pigs perspective on humanity out of Lord of the Flies’
so all three -ings are obviously gerunds. (Nice ascending tricolon, though).