Sunday, July 24, 2011

Caring for the Me Generation

During the past semester, a time where I constantly felt split between my academic life and my civic life, I became acutely aware of an attitude among undergraduates that perplexed me. I tried writing about it , describing what readers pointed out (in a far more articulate manner than I'd managed) was a notable lack of empathy among some students.

Since I've spent the last 10 years trying to make convince higher education institutions to prioritize their students' needs and desires, these realizations about who some of the students seemed to be and especially what they seemed to believe, made me pretty depressed. Don't get me wrong: it's not that I expect students to speak and act in one voice--far from it, given how much I value the democratic process. I don't want them to share my opinions or perspectives, but rather simply want them to formulate opinions and perspectives after asking good questions and gathering and evaluating information. But what I hope for, most of all, is their recognition that they are part of a worldwide community of students, and their strength lies in that community. I hope that such a larger sense of the world will guide them to think of more than themselves, and to act for the greater good.

Of course, what I learned from social media engagement this spring is what the Me Generation is really all about. "Me."

As it turns out, this is not at all a Wisconsin phenomenon. There's rigorous research from the University of Michigan demonstrating a sharp decline in empathy among undergraduates, based on data from 14,000 students over 30 years. Compared to students who attended college 20-30 years ago, undergraduates in the first decade of the new millenium scored 40% lower in empathy. Said one of the study's authors, this group is among the "most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history."

The authors speculate as to the root causes, citing among other things the influence of media and social media in particular. But those are worldwide phenomena, and this is a U.S. study (I strongly suspect such trends aren't felt in many other countries). Instead, I'm betting that we have Ronald Reagan to thank. The undergraduates of the 1970s and 1980s were raised by parents who came of age under the New Deal, during times when social justice and civil rights for all were demanded and (to some degree) received. They were more often raised to appreciate the luck and good fortune that gave opportunities to them, and worked to share those opportunities with others. Not so for the undergraduates of the 2000s, whose parents came into adulthood under the Gipper, a period in which inequality blossomed, and consumption was conspicuous. They've never known a time when college wasn't insanely expensive, always assumed that the American Dream was only about individual effort, and they were listening as even the Democrats placed all of the blame for poverty at the feet of the poor (yes, I'm looking at you Bill Clinton).

Reversing this trend is absolutely necessary for ensuring the well-being of people everywhere. As the Michigan researchers noted, what accompanies an exclusive emphasis on oneself is a "corresponding devaluation of others." Such a condition tears at the web of our social life and creates conditions of anomie that increase the spread of poverty and perpetuate hatred and fear like that evidenced in recent events in Norway.

So, start now. Take this quiz created by the Michigan researchers and see how YOU compare to those undergrads they surveyed. Then decide what to do with your results.

ps. In case you are curious, I scored a 59/70, meaning more empathetic than 80% of the study's participants. Thanks Poppa.

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