A soul-crushing weakness has crept into Western education in the past two decades that has increased student anxiety and depression and decimated basic skills. Five years ago, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff called this crisis “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Comedian George Carlin saw warning signs back in the 1990s when he criticized the burgeoning cult of child worship in American society. More recently, Dr. Jordan Peterson has linked this problem to adults who themselves are stuck in a “Peter Pan syndrome,” never wishing to grow up and responsibly address the existential questions that face us all. Suffice it to say that Western education is failing its students by adopting policies and programs that sell “wellness” and “care” but, in fact, sow hopelessness and despair.
Despite this bleak picture, there are practical measures that educators can take to stem this dangerous tide and make students strong again. Firstly, they can address the core issue that fuels existential dread in both students and adults: meaninglessness. This is no easy task, of course, and educators should be guided by those trained in the theology, philosophy, and psychology needed to breakdown the fundamental questions of our existence. Students are thirsting for this. But rather than giving them something of substance regarding this shared challenge, educators have served students a steady diet of hollow slogans designed to make them “feel good.” These measures include daily “check-in” sessions to assess “well-being” and Orwellian campaigns like “Kindness Week.” This constant focus on how students are feeling and how they should act, however, can actually increase rather than decrease anxiety and depression. As Stanford University neuroscientist Andrew Huberman has shown, the same part of the brain that processes positive emotion also processes negative emotion. Thus, he encourages a pain-pleasure balance to increase satisfaction through hard work. Perhaps counter-intuitively, Huberman has shown the necessity of struggle and sacrifice in helping young people maintain that balance. At the high school level, teachers should introduce students to the idea that we are wired to find meaning through struggle; in fact, rather than running from it at every opportunity, we should seek it out. By way of introduction, teachers might ask students to discuss the philosopher William James’ quote: “Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what brings the void.”
Encouraging students to confront and harness their inner monsters might result in a generation with the strength to battle against and surmount the tragedies of human existence.
Secondly, teachers should help students tackle the question of being good. This would entail a deep look at Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of “integrating the shadow.” Rather than misleading students in teaching that being passive is somehow virtuous, educators should push them to see that virtue is derived from the strength needed to overcome one’s dark side. This, of course, would require teachers and students to honestly recognize the capacity that each human has for mayhem and chaos and to develop the strategies to overcome them. A good primer here, again, is Peterson, who encourages us to be virtuous monsters. Virtuous monsters established the foundation for the constitutional republics that have secured peace, stability, and affluence in the West since the late 18th century. Moreover, the West has harnessed the collective monstrousness of the virtuous to defeat existential enemies, most notably Nazi Germany in World War II and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Thus, it’s imperative that teachers focus on what students can do to build the mental and physical strength needed to ensure that democratic republics can continue to meet existential challenges rather than devolve into self-destructive Huxleyan dystopias.
A third way to build strength would be to ask students to consider the evolutionary process that put them in a 2023 classroom. A quickly written timeline on the board with details about war, disease, famine, and child mortality in the 20th century would be enough to highlight how incredibly strong students’ ancestors were. That this is encoded in students’ DNA should spark some questioning of the current approach that emphasizes fragility over strength. Consequently, the narrative might shift from “I’m a victim oppressed by nefarious forces outside my control” to “I am a grateful and capable recipient of the genes needed to carry on the struggle for good.” In this light, healthy competition should be reintroduced into the classroom, pitting students against each other in carefully designed activities with clear winners and losers. The objective, of course, would not be to humiliate those who lose. Rather, it would be to help them understand why they lost and what they can do to build resilience and develop winning strategies. Absent this simple approach, we are in danger of unleashing on the West a generation of narcissists with the irrational idea that everybody is a winner.
Lastly, educators should tell heroic stories. These stories should both extol the incredible progress that humans have made since the Industrial Revolution and address the great price paid for that progress. Thus, such stories would not be hagiographies designed to indoctrinate but critical narratives intended to push students to consider how those imperfect humans who came before them surmounted hardship. A simple question that might help students appreciate these struggles could be: Would you rather have been born in 1920 or 2020? Giving students a quick look at the harsh living conditions in the industrialized world 100 years ago and asking how their fates would have been impacted by the start of World War II in 1939 could lead them to appreciate the struggles of their predecessors. Those struggles should be captured in heroic tales of young men and women who sacrificed their lives for the greater good.
It is vital to instill in students a respect for humanity and human accomplishments that inspires them to remain positive, study hard, and draw on the strength of the past to make the sacrifices necessary to overcome present and future challenges. At the least, we need to help students realize their strengths so that they don’t get stuck in the apathetic loop of “the world’s a terrible place, I’m a terrible person, and nothing can be done about it.” It is unlikely that a “well-being” campaign or a week of “kindness” will effectively address this problem. On the other hand, encouraging students to confront and harness their inner monsters might result in a generation with the strength to battle against and surmount the tragedies of human existence. It is primarily this battle that has pushed the West forward.
We cannot afford to lose.
Dana E. Abizaid has taught in universities and high schools for over 20 years. Currently, he teaches European history at the Istanbul International Community School.
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