Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Majoring in Fear

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Majoring in Fear

Article excerpt

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 moodstabilizing 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 passageis 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 uncertaintiesof 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. …

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