More than a decade ago, David Brooks described a generation of America’s elite university students as “organization kids.” Their lives were obsessively scheduled around achievements designed to provide them with competitive advantages. Formed by a childhood crammed with cognitive enhancement and programmed activities, accustomed throughout high school to relentlessly grooming their résumés for selective college admissions, kept on track through it all with mood-stabilizing drugs, these organization kids seemed incapable of pausing to reflect on what gave any meaning to their efforts. Nor were they encouraged to do so. Success—defined as admission to elite universities and graduate programs, followed by plum internships and jobs—had become an end in itself.
I teach Brooks to my honors students in their first week of college. They recognize themselves in his account. But they also see an important difference. Unlike the students in the article, they no longer see themselves sailing through their lives of advancement with sunny confidence that they’ll land the dream job. They worry their achievements won’t be enough.
Given this worry, it’s easy to see why The Hunger Games is the novel of their generation. The trilogy depicts adolescents rigorously trained by adults for desperate but meaningless life-or-death competitions. Its dark emptiness resonates with students’ latent unease and dissatisfaction with their educational regimen, as well as with their worry that they’re all honed up with no place to go. Afflicted with a desperate compulsion for competitive advantage, they rack up majors, minors, certificates, credentials, and internships to keep them in the running for what they feel to be an ever more elusive success. They’re driven by fear.
This fear (which we prefer to cloak under the more respectable name of “anxiety”) is the real story behind the current steady decline in the humanities. According to Amazon, the most highlighted passage in all books read on Kindle—highlighted almost twice as often as any other passage—is from the second volume of The Hunger Games: “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.” Students want continual reassurance that they’re equipping themselves. They clothe themselves in an armor of achievement that they hope will protect them against uncertainties—of the job market, of course, but also deeper uncertainties about their status, their identities, their self-worth. Disciplines that have (or appear to have) a technical character and a clear arc of accumulated knowledge and skills leading toward a foreseeable career goal reinforce the feeling that they are working steadily, assignment by assignment, toward gaining more control over an uncertain future.
When I talk to students early in their college careers about what they plan to study, many of them are attracted to humanities majors, but few take that route. Most are afraid of what they imagine to be the practical consequences. Their parents, who are determined to get a reliable return on the increasingly hefty investment of a college education, share and reinforce their fears.
There are, of course, perfectly reasonable arguments (supported by evidence) for the practical advantages of the humanities. Medical schools recognize the value of humane learning, so studying the literature that you really love can give you a boost in the admissions pool. Employers know that a degree in classics is evidence of intelligence, discipline, analytic ability, and linguistic precision as well as of the ability to think your way into another culture. Liberal-arts majors tend to out-earn business majors over the long run. But these truths make little impression. Parents and students are not looking for rational arguments. They are looking for something to latch onto now to quiet their fears.
Some students discover, with a visible sense of relief, that they have no real interest in the “practical” paths they had marked out for themselves. They switch to a humanities discipline that gives them scope for reflection. Yet they often speak of ongoing anxiety about their decision, even though they are utterly convinced it’s the right one for them. They have lost the daily reassurance of progress toward a goal that they can articulate in advance. What can they say to those who ask them what they’re planning to do with their lives? They have taken a risk: facing the important questions that don’t conform to the sequential steps of textbooks.
What beliefs are implied in the choices I make? What alternative beliefs would lead to alternative choices? What are the real compass points of human existence, the questions a meaningful human life must confront? How much of what “everyone thinks,” including the convictions of “educated and sophisticated people,” is actually false or dubious? Initially, these questions can disorient us. They offer no clear-cut paths with agreed-on answers, no external benchmarks of our progress in understanding. We must judge for ourselves whether we are gaining insight and clarity.
It has always been hard to answer life’s deep and abiding questions. Today’s educational culture makes it hard to ask them at all. We have been accustomed from childhood to rely on institutionalized criteria to measure us. We have been indoctrinated (and sometimes bullied) into being “nonjudgmental”—never to threaten the complacency of others in their differing opinions. Humane learning asks us to do something we’re unprepared to do: measure ourselves and venture judgments.
Our universities should be encouraging and assisting in this task. Instead, our prestigious institutions, afraid of losing their recognition for being “selective” (which means having plenty of applicants to turn away), direct their marketing toward parental and student anxieties. Students are being shaped for college careers by means of fear, and the halls of academia are increasingly echo chambers of that fear.
The current sharp decline in the study of English literature, foreign languages, classics, history, and philosophy seems to coincide with the recent financial crisis. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences reports that from 2009 to 2011, the share of core humanities disciplines in the total of undergraduate degrees earned fell by approximately 7 percent. But the same analysis shows that this continues and steepens a mostly downward trend from a peak reached in the early 1990s. There are many ways of interpreting and accounting for these trends, but it seems to me that fear explains a great deal. It represents an overall change in our sense of who we are and the world we live in.
Toward the end of the Cold War, there was a strong consensus that we were fighting on the right side of a struggle—for human freedom, dignity, and prosperity—whose outcome would have profound consequences for the world’s future. For a brief time after 1989, Americans felt a certain euphoria and confidence as the victors in this great struggle. As this faded, we began to lose any distinct vision of what future our efforts were directed toward.
The students Brooks examined in 2001, who had entered adolescence after the fall of the Berlin Wall, spent their formative years in a world predicted by Francis Fukuyama in 1992: “The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.”
It seems paradoxical. Why should the defeat of the enemy who could have annihilated us at any moment lead to a heightening of fear? The answer is sitting next to us. When the kid at the next desk might out-compete me, edging me out of the path to economic security, then the hope that we may prevail together gives way to the fear that I will be the one who fails. When the specter of shrinking prosperity increases competition for scarce opportunities and engenders doubt that I will do as well as my parents, that fear intensifies. At the same time, we hear of vague, unpredictable threats—global warming, economic volatilities, the terrorism that has turned airports and government buildings into places almost entirely organized around our attempt to forestall disaster. Our fear has become a pathological condition, a desperate need to bring the future under control. And we seek therapy from colleges and universities, the therapy of cumulative achievement along clearly marked pathways to success.
A friend of mine chairs an honors program. He will accept only students who are willing to ponder fundamental questions, reflect thoughtfully on how important writers ask and answer these questions, and respond to direct challenges to their own positions. But he still runs up against the fear that grips so many students. Although his program gets more than enough high-achieving applicants with stellar test scores to fill the available seats, it cannot find enough students with the courage to engage in this kind of questioning. Of necessity, over the years the program has been topped off with conventionally accomplished and bright but unadventurous applicants, who generally transferred out after a year of struggling unsuccessfully to find a well-worn track with clear milestones. Now, rather than compromise the excellence and excitement of the program, my friend accepts fewer students.
Over the past several years, my university has shared in the steady decline of majors in philosophy, history, and English. We have seen steady growth in economics, which students imagine holds the key to the uncertain future; Spanish, which over the last thirty years has become the second language of choice in America’s schools, largely on practical grounds; and Arab and Islamic studies, which has obvious appeal, given the particular uncertainties of our day. They see themselves as engaged in training that will equip them for an uncertain future.
But a different, deeper kind of preparation also appeals. My own interdisciplinary humanities department maintains a persistent focus on the fundamental questions, and we have seen surprising growth. Conversations with our students convince me that they come because they see us offering a better alternative. The examined life does something more important than set them on a secure path to a particular job. It gives them clearer bearings amid life’s uncertainties, a place to stand outside the game of fear. It also addresses what might be the deepest fear of all, which is that endless achievement might not add up to a meaningful life, that winning the races of academic and professional competition might not bring genuine happiness. Facing the human questions squarely can help us cultivate the courage and wisdom to live a life well.
Students are right to worry that “sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.” As educators we need to remind our students, and ourselves, that this will be especially true if we haven’t developed the capacity and resources for reflection on our lives.
Mark Shiffman is associate professor of humanities at Villanova University.