At the highest levels of education, we are allowing our children to exalt victimhood and denigrate excellence. The price will be more than lax standards and subpar achievement. It will result in a generation incapable of confronting the difficulties — and glories — of life itself.
One of the most under-rated films of the past two decades is a movie called The Weatherman, starring Nicholas Cage and Michael Caine. There is an extraordinary scene in which Michael Caine’s character attempts to impart some paternal advice to his son, an existentially bewildered weatherman struggling to achieve anything of real substance in his middle-aged, fledgling life.
He asks his son, “Do you know that the harder thing to do and the right thing to do are usually the same thing?”
This week, the New York Times featured a story about a much-celebrated Princeton and New York University chemistry professor named Maitland Jones Jr., who was suddenly dismissed from his adjunct position at New York University. Eighty two of three hundred fifty students signed a petition against him, claiming his chemistry course was unnecessarily rigorous and was becoming an unfair hurdle in their quest to win acceptance to medical school someday.
The article inadvertently stumbled on the truth when it observed, “In short, this one unhappy chemistry class could be a case study of the pressures on higher education as it tries to handle its Gen Z student body.”
The problem of how “to handle” Gen Z students is actually rather simple: students, even at elite universities, have the misbegotten notion that rigor is wrong, that sacrifice is a form of stealth oppression, and that any inequality of outcome is proof of a malevolent and systematic cabal foisted upon ambitious students who have an absolute right to achieve their dreams.
Consider some of the quotes from Professor Jones:
“Students were misreading exam questions at an astonishing rate . . .”
“In the last two years, they fell off a cliff . . .”
“We now see single digit scores and even zeros . . .”
“They weren’t coming to class, that’s for sure, because I can count the house . . .”
“They weren’t watching the videos, and they weren’t able to answer the questions . . .”
A colleague of Dr. Jones made a comment that every high school and college teacher in America can relate to, “I think this petition was written more out of unhappiness with exam scores than an actual feeling of being treated unfairly. I have noticed that many of the students who consistently complained about the class did not use the resources we afforded to them.”
Almost a decade ago, legendary researcher Jean Twenge noticed that modern students craved wealth and success but didn’t particularly seem interested in putting in the time and effort commensurate with such success. In the past decade, the amount of time students spend studying, reading, or doing school work, in general, has absolutely plummeted. I have been guilty of catering to this cult of ease in my own teaching career—the most popular YouTube video I ever taped for my AP classes, by far, was titled, “Pass AP Government exam w/ 75 MINUTE REVIEW!!!!”
My colleagues and I have noticed that if we tape any review video over five minutes long, the students simply will not watch it. The notion they should spend time outside of class studying for a test is anathema to modern sensibilities, even for the most gifted students.
And yet, this attitude is more than simple sloth or empty entitlement. It is an ethic which does not comprehend, or even recognize, that sacrifice rocks the cradle of genuine achievement, that time, talent, and an endless zeal for a particular ambition can still come up short of the ultimate goal for most people, most of the time.
But what is most worrisome transcends classrooms and boardrooms and reveals a more poignant ailment of the American soul: if young Americans think organic chemistry is hard, imagine what it is like to kick drug addiction or raise a special needs child or endure the hardship of chemotherapy or confront the infidelity of a spouse or the betrayal of a close friend. Life is not a festival of therapeutic accommodation and the world is not a global Make a Wish Foundation.
In a League of Their Own, Tom Hank’s character, Jimmy Dugan, attempts to explain what makes baseball so special: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” It is fascinating and worthy of further exploration that most young Americans aren’t exposed to movies with dialogue like this or characters of Dugan’s ilk.
For some reason, in the realm of sports, Americans are fully accepting of exceptionally high standards. We revel in stories of Michael Jordon’s superhuman competitiveness, we are inspired that Kobe Bryant would take up to 1,000 practice shots a day, or that Andre Agassi would spend his Christmas vacations running up hills outside Las Vegas, sometimes until he vomited. If a football coach responded to poor effort and a lackadaisical ethic from his players by raising his voice and hitting a chalk board he would probably be celebrated for his devotion to excellence.
If a math teacher (or organic chemistry professor) does it, he gets petitioned and loses his job.
Don’t tell me there isn’t something wrong here. A word that has vanished from modern parlance but was one of the most cherished virtues of antiquity is “fortitude.” Fortitude is strength, it’s resilience, it’s a dozen different tributaries of grit. And it is a virtue because it is wholly necessary for a successful and flourishing existence.
We do our children no favors by empowering them to denigrate excellence and exalt victimhood. And yet that is exactly what we are doing in our schools and in our universities.
Good luck America.
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation, recently released in paperback. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.