Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Silver Lining in Today's College Student

From the beginning of time, I suppose, each generation has been identified as headed to hell in a hand basket.  Or so the pundits would have us believe.  Teens and young adults are favorites for social critiquing and waxing philosophical on the demise of civilization as we know it.  Little awareness of the irony involved is apparent; what about the older adults who have a more direct role in today's events?  While the "adults" work feverishly to destroy each other in various parts of the world, for example, one group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim teenagers are hoping to better understand and communicate with each other.

This is not to say that troubling trends or themes don't exist.  In their book Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student, Arthur Levine and Diane Dean write about such themes in young adults.  They tell us that they are at once low in resilience and high in self-confidence.  They think their grades don't actually reflect their performance.  They embrace social media extensively, yet lack actual in-person communication skills.  They see themselves as worldly, but can't identify world leaders.  And so on.  There are data to support these observations.  But do these data mean they are a hopeless, "broken generation", or just different from us older, wiser folk?  I vote for the latter.

Jonny Wakefield, himself a college student from Canada, would vote similarly, I think.  He warns of the dangers of such trendspotting in the lives of young adults.  He posits, rightly, that sweeping generational narratives are both imprecise and subject to self-fulfilling prophesies.  Which, in the case of young adult mental health, is precisely what we don't want to invoke.  Do we really want college students to see themselves as feckless and entitled losers?  I think not.

It might just be that we do not understand what we are seeing.  It may be that youth are doing what each generation did before them: doing their best, with what we gave them, to adjust to a challenging and rapidly changing world.  Sure, some of what they will do will fail.  Just as my generation did, and as my parents' generation did before me.  They will undoubtedly learn some hard lessons along the way.  But the seeds of seeing and doing things differently are already in them, and those will bear surely some fruit later on.  When I encounter young people in my work, I detect a level of energy and boundary-busting creativity that I don't see as much in my peers.  That is cause for hope, my friends.  Perhaps they will be able to make things better in the world, if we celebrate and cultivate their strengths rather than focus on their shortcomings.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Failure and Growth Cycle

Some view western culture, and American culture in particular, as a society which places a premium on the success and advancement of the individual.  Critics of this view argue that this premium diminishes some individuals and groups, but others say this does not necessarily have to occur; that one can promote the interests of the individual and society at the same time.  See the works of Ruth Benedict and John Kenneth Galbraith for references on that subject.  In my experience it takes an educated and enlightened individual to pursue "success" and also orient that success to higher purposes, such as benefiting larger and larger circles of human beings.

Enter typical college students and their families.  As noted elsewhere in my blog they tend to arrive being very focused on pragmatic issues such as living arrangements and choice of major.  There is a tremendous amount of energy focused on moving the late adolescent and young adult along a continuum of advancement, however that may be conceived in family ethics and values.  Getting good grades, joining the "right" organizations, and networking for future employment are, in the minds of those involved, locked in rather tightly.  Variance from this template is often frowned upon, if not met with punitive consequences.

But college life is a crucible for the formation of both individuality and responsibility or conscience.  Mistakes and failures are inevitable, and the stuff which catalyzes the higher calling of the young adult.  In his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough theorizes that non-cognitive skills such as persistence, resilience and fortitude are actually the bases of future success, though it is cognitive skills that often get the attention.  In this view mistakes and failures are desirable, the launching pad for growth.  In short, one gets intimately acquainted with one's self, with both talents and foibles, through a cycle of failure and growth.

Such is the process of learning who we are, what we can do, and the limitations presented by our perceptions and biases.  The process of "advancement" is much more earthy and sobering than western mythologies would have us believe.  It is very much two steps forward, one backward, a thousand blind alleys to ten workable paths.  And this is to be embraced, not belittled.  Great achievers like Newton, Edison, Einstein, and Carver all said so.

Families can be wonderful allies in the young adult's search for self by understanding this cycle, by welcoming it, and by patiently waiting for their children to learn life's lessons.  Students will succeed in their journey to self-hood by minimizing anxieties about social perfection, or, better yet, rooting them out altogether.  It takes courage to advance.  Fear won't get us there.