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Excerpt: “Setting the Bar”

I pedal away with an all-too-familiar question bouncing around my head: ‘What are we doing to these kids?'”

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Setting the Bar: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Era of Distraction, Dependency, and Entitlement, which was published in September by Barbarian Virtues Press. This excerpt has been lightly edited.

“Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you.” – Flannery O’Connor

I’m riding my bike to work. The sun is rising, and the air has that crisp September morning scent. I always enjoy these morning rides, but today my joy borders on bliss. A curious sense of connection washes over me. It’s one of those rare, Forrest Gump moments when the grandeur of life hits you all at once and the mundane is suddenly transcendent—when, for reasons you can’t explain, you find yourself smiling at the sky like a dog basking in the sun after a long winter. 

I turn the corner and find myself approaching seven high school students waiting on their bus. You likely have memories of yourself doing the same—standing on the corner talking, joking, laughing—being a kid. Throw that image out. What I see is six kids sitting (yes, sitting) on the curb silently scanning their phones. Their heads are tilted to the side lazily, mouths open, faces empty, and thumbs swiping steadily in search of distraction. To say they are entranced is not sufficient. Each is a solitary island unconcerned for the life form just inches away. They exude a lobotomized disinterest in the world—completely removed.

I could run up in a pink tutu and start skipping in circles around them and they might never notice. In fact, they don’t even register this bald, red-bearded bicyclist, until I am right next to them. Upon seeing one former student’s surprised recognition, I succumb to the first grumpy old man comment that crosses my mind: “You could talk to each other, you know.”

Not my finest moment. I’d prefer not to be the kind of guy who heckles unsuspecting youth. Yet, on this morning, I am the grouch spouting condescension on deaf ears. So much for bliss. I pedal away with an all-too-familiar question bouncing around my head: “What are we doing to these kids?”

I’ve asked myself this question almost every day for a decade while working in high schools, first as a teacher and now a high school campus Strength and Conditioning Coordinator. Every generation faces its share of kids these days pushback. In 1816, The Times of London, called for parents to stand guard against a disturbing new form of dance called “the waltz,” which was sure to erode the fabric of society. Likewise, adults who lived through the Great Depression and Second World War no doubt looked on in disgust as their children listened to rock and roll and were spoiled rotten by the addition of a fourth television channel. I’m sure even our nomadic ancestors couldn’t help but scoff at the behavior of their youngest generation.

“Crull, quit that foolish cave painting and help your sister collect walnuts. Kids these days!”

Yet, the reality remains that our youth development culture has been spinning out of control for some time. Through no fault of their own, more people than ever are coming of age fragile and unprepared for the rapidly changing world they will inherit. The rumblings of crotchety old men everywhere, while not telling the whole story, certainly bear a good degree of truth. Our children are entitled, soft, and lacking much sense of purpose other than to satisfy their most superficial desires. The modern youth development paradigm focuses on providing the highest level of comfort and entertainment possible. We obsess on providing outcomes but too often ignore the quality of the people we are creating. 

Compare our children to those throughout history. How would today’s kids measure up against those of the civil war era or the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s? Certainly, they are more likely to hold edified social views. We can’t overlook the racism, misogyny, and homophobia that characterized most of history (and which persisted well after those often-glorified 1950’s). However, progressive beliefs on race and gender equality are, largely, the consequence of cultural osmosis. For most, they are inherited perceptions that require little effort and, therefore, they are a poor judge of a generation’s character. As psychologist Daniel Gilbert put it, “… condemning Thomas Jefferson for keeping slaves or Sigmund Freud for patronizing women is a bit like arresting someone today for having driven without a seatbelt in 1923.”

For the sake of my thought experiment, let’s presume past generations shared our current belief in the equality between the races, sexes, etc. How would today’s youth compare in regard to defining and adhering to their own standards? How would a 14-year-old today compare with one in 1947 in regards to discipline, resilience, courage, gratitude, perseverance, toughness, patience, ingenuity, physical fitness, honesty, loyalty, or citizenship? Who would you rather have by your side in hard times? Who is more likely to replace the toilet paper roll when it runs out? 

Still, this book isn’t about creating a hypothetical generational round-robin tournament. I want to explore how we can live better today. What attitudes and skills matter? What pitfalls do we need to avoid? In short, who do we want to be and how can we better prepare future generations to create great lives? 

And this is where we find the most damning evidence of a failing culture. Despite experiencing a higher standard of living than any generation in history, our children’s mental and physical health are worse than ever. As a look at the numbers will show, new technology and failing youth development norms are combining to lead our children towards a staggering level of physical and mental degradation:

The evidence speaks to an environment that provides youth with material needs but fails to give them the tools for building a fulfilling life. We have less inequality, less violence, more medications, more mandatory sensitivity training, more pleasure, and fewer pains. So, what the hell is wrong with us?

“The real problem of humanity is the following: We have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.” –E.O. Wilson

In the 2007 comedy Idiocracy, Joe Bauers is selected for a one-year hibernation experiment after a battery of tests indicates that he is the most average person in the entire armed forces. Bauers is cryogenically frozen, but soon thereafter the officer in charge of the experiment is arrested and Bauers forgotten. He remains frozen until 2505 when the collapse of a gigantic garbage pile awakens him to a world he hardly recognizes. People named after corporate brands spend their days in plastic homes, seated on chairs that have built-in toilets, watching television programs that would make Beavis and Butthead look refined. Bauers assumes that he must be experiencing hallucinogenic effects from the hibernation experiment, so he checks into a hospital. This eventually leads him to take a 2505-style IQ test, which reveals that the once-average Joe is now, by far, the smartest person alive. 

Similarly, the 2008 Disney and Pixar film Wall-E features a robot garbage compactor of the imagined future. Wall-E patrols the now-toxic earth centuries after humans have been evacuated by Buy-N-Large (the corporate giant who came to own everything). Wall-E eventually finds his way onto a starliner where we see the devolved, morbidly obese human population of the 29th century. People are conveyed across the spaceship on loungers. Screens hover in their faces, prompting them to consume, as robots zoom around to meet their every need. 

Light-hearted as these films are, they convey something about the trajectory of civilization that we’ve all felt. Humanity en masse is growing less capable of an increasing number of basic human skills—from navigating, to running and climbing, building shelter, adding numbers in our head, and dealing with boredom or pain. As Yuval Noah Harari puts it in his latest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:

“We have bred docile cows that produce enormous amounts of milk, but are otherwise far inferior to their wild ancestors. They are less agile, less curious, and less resourceful. We are now creating tame humans that produce enormous amounts of data and function as very efficient chips in a huge data processing mechanism, but these data cows hardly maximize the human potential.”

Technological progress is creating a level of convenience, security, and distraction that seems to be making us less human. And if this lack of development makes us less human, the indication is that some level of skill-development is fundamental to our humanity. Without something pulling us up, we become a lesser version of ourselves—less capable, less activated, less engaged, and less likely to pursue the transformative experiences that might change us. This all might somehow be palatable if it wasn’t also killing our spirits. 

Throughout human history, the pursuit of competency has been essential to human survival and the survival of our communities. Civilizations had to develop a social apparatus that pulled people to a baseline level of competency, or they would not last. Usefulness was a requirement of life, and, consequently, humans evolved a deep yearning to be useful. But modernity—with its attention-hacking algorithms, automated processes, and rampant safetyism—seems to be specifically designed to stamp out our basic inclinations for self-expansion. Advanced technology makes it possible for society to “progress,” even while a majority of individuals never reaches a baseline competency. People can now go their whole lives without being useful except as scrollers, eaters, and buyers. But this need not be the case. 

When we talk about progress, we tend to think in terms of increasing technological capability. Progress is the development of technology like map apps and driverless cars that eliminate the need for human competency. This honors one or both of the chief values of modernity—safety and convenience—but runs contrary to the goal of human flourishing. We need a new definition of progress. 

It takes a village to raise a child, or so the saying goes. But our villages have undergone a rapid deterioration over the past decades. They show all the markers of growth—the new schools, restaurant chains, and Super Targets—but with a marked loss of connection and identity. Communities are no longer the vehicles where culture spreads and evolves so much as they are the playing field where consumerist forces manifest. 

Now more than ever before, our cultural values are being formed by people we’ve never met. Parents and community organizations have watched their influence steadily decline as an explosion of mass marketing and mass entertainment came to define our world. Today, these intertwined industries are the primary source of our values. They’ve transformed every sector of society and re-shaped the goals that drive our lives. 

Our failed youth development paradigm is fueled by the misconception that, if it were possible, a life without responsibility would be optimal. The best life would just be for our children to win the lottery at age 22 so they never have to work for anything. In reality, nothing could be less fulfilling. 

Happiness is a lot more complex than just increasing pleasure and decreasing pain. Sure, peanut butter cookies and pizza are awesome. Yet, we all intuitively grasp that a never-ending supply of cookies, reality television, or whatever indulgence you crave won’t add up to enduring happiness. These lower pleasures, as philosopher John Stuart Mill called them, are not bad, per se, but they grow destructive when we make them the point of life. Lasting fulfillment is much more dependent on self-actualization, which psychologist Abraham Maslow described as, “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” Maslow saw the process of moving toward self-actualization as the chief need of a human life.

The Greeks had another word: eudaimonia, which roughly translates to human flourishing or “life well lived.” To them, happiness wasn’t an immediate subjective state that came and went like the fleeting pleasures of pecan pie a la mode. Eudaimonia was the pursuit of a well-balanced ideal—one that became richer and more nuanced as we mature. To the Greeks, the life well lived was not an abstract passing notion. It was their north star—the chief aim of existence. They wrote books, developed hero-cults, and birthed philosophy as we know it, all in an effort to better understand this pursuit. 

Today, we think a lot about happiness, but the culture at large is uncomfortable with topics such as the life well lived. Our failure to clarify a concept of happiness that goes beyond immediate gratification lies at the root of our mental health crisis. We’ve failed to clarify a more inspiring vision than feeling good all the time, and, consequently, many grow up to find that life feels bland and meaningless.

Shane Trotter is a writer and high-school educator in Texas. Setting the Bar: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Era of Distraction, Dependency, and Entitlement is his first book. 

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