Thursday, September 22, 2011

Rising Expectations and Narcissism

The Atlantic recently published a collection of letters from readers, mostly in their twenties and early thirties, documenting their reactions to the widespread unemployment among recent college graduates. (H/T: First Things.) The letters evince a stark division between the soon-to-retire Baby Boomers and the so-called "Millennials" who now find themselves without work or struggling to advance upward from entry-level jobs.

The young and old, of course, will always view life through different lenses, and when it comes to the process of forging one's way in life their perspectives can differ dramatically. But, in recent years, this difference in perspective seems to have grown into a complete blindness toward the others' position. Here is the extreme version of the disagreement:

The younger, college-educated generation looks up to the older generation, and sees that its parents have reached stable positions in society. They may not be rich, but they certainly have made enough money to raise a family and to purchase a comfortable home. And that is all the younger generation wants: a chance to earn a decent living, do interesting work, and start a family. That's the American Dream. Yet now, after earning a college degree and perhaps even a professional degree, they find themselves unemployed and in serious debt. Even if they do eventually find work, it will be some kind of soul-less office work and most of their paychecks for the foreseeable future will go toward paying down their student loans and covering rent and the utilities. Life is bleak.

The older generation, on the other hand, can remember working its way up through the ranks in its younger days and can't understand what all the whining is about. They remember stagflation, when the interest rates for a mortgage were astronomically high, and the OPEC oil embargo, when it was difficult just to fill the car with gas. They haven't always felt fulfilled by their jobs but they sucked it up and through their hard work they got where they are today. Moreover, once they had some money, they spent it on their children. No generation ever had it easier growing up.

Although there will always be tension between parents and their children and there will be rivalry for jobs in every economy, the older generation does deserve a lot of the blame, and the younger generation should be up in arms.

Why? Because the older generation spoiled us with all its talk of self-esteem. One correspondent seems to be aware of the problem of rising expectations but curiously, and implausibly, denies that he had any expectations of succeeding in life:
Some say that we should not expect things to be handed to us, and that we should just stop whining. That may be the case for some, but what about those of us who never expected anything? There are thousands of us who worked hard and did everything that we were supposed to do. We were told, "If you push yourself and work harder than everyone else, you will succeed."

The problem of rising expectations arises precisely in the kind of situation that this writer describes, when children are given definite ideas what it can hope to receive from their parents when they reach their majority. In the case of America, the parents of the last generation were encouraged by "parenting experts" and professional pedagogues to make their children believe in themselves, no matter what. This boosting of the younger generation's self-esteem is not entirely new, of course; it is part and parcel of what Christopher Lasch called America's "culture of narcissism." A brief perusal of the letters shows that many members of the younger generation are struggling with the issue of narcissism. One admits that he belongs to a "me-first generation." An older writer blames Generation Y for its self-centeredness. One Millennial, though, turns the table and condemns the Baby Boomers for their own selfishness and hypocrisy in telling the rising generation to suck it up. But all the writers agree that the central battle in this generational warfare is whether the younger generation is too spoiled or whether the older generation is unable to empathize with their children's plight.

And the consequence of feeding youngsters' self-esteem is fairly predictable: rising expectations accompanied by a sense of entitlement. And when those expectations are not met, the younger generation reacts with anger towards its parents. After years of being given awards for trying--though not always achieving--in school, many Millennials are being confronted with failure for the first time at the time in their lives when it matters most, when they are starting their careers and forging the relationships that will (hopefully) last the rest of their lives. They are visited by a "sense of inner emptiness" when they no longer receive the attention that was practically their birthright.

The emphasis on self-esteem in education and the consequent inability to deal with disappointment in life lead to the conclusion that America today is being devastated by what a recent book has labeled The Narcissism Epidemic. (Disclaimer: I have not read the book and cannot speak to the details.) But, if the younger generation really is suffering from a narcissism epidemic, the worst approach to the problem would be to cast all the blame on the older generation, thus absolving itself of all responsibility for its problem.

Is there any solution? Unfortunately, this is the type of dilemma that a narcissist cannot find his way out of without a willingness to forgive others and to change his life. But, that is precisely what narcissism makes so hard.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Herodotus, Thucydides and The Idea of History

Earlier this year I read R. G. Collingwood's The Idea of History. The book is quite insightful, a "must read" for any philosopher of history. On the whole, I quite enjoyed it.

However, one passage hit me hard, like watching one friend knife another friend. You see, Collingwood insists that Thucydides is not really a historian. Herodotus gets the honor, but not Thucydides.

Ever since I first read Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War I have been a fan. Not a historian? No, Collingwood explains, Thucydides is really a philosopher. Historians, Collingwood says, recreate the thoughts of past men. That is their task. It is a fundamentally particular task, dealing with men individually. Philosophers, on the other hand, are primarily concerned with the general, those things which are true of all men. Herodotus is often criticized for repeating legends and hear-say, and he deserves the criticism. However, his approach is fundamentally particular, asking here about the Persians and there about the Egyptians; though he makes connections across cultures, he is also willing to accept them with their differences.

Thucydides has a rather different approach, though the difference is not always obvious. In his introduction, Thucydides notes that when he had no report of a given speech, he has filled in the gap with what must have been said. In other words, if we know the speech was preceded by A, and followed by C, the speaker must have said something along the lines of B - it's the obvious way to get from one to the other. Thucydides' method is broadly sound; after all, we infer things all the time, in history and in life. However, this method reveals a disregard for the messy details of life, and leans on broad statements about men generally. Why do men go to war? Thucydides asks. Only three reasons: fear, greed or honor. This is profound insight into the human person, but it is not history. History is more concrete than that.

Must history simply involve disconnected facts? Can it never approach the general? The philosophic historian - and by that I do not mean one that belongs to the discipline of philosophy, but one that desires the deepest truths - must constantly hold together the tension between the particularities of history and the desire for general knowledge. To stray too far from this tension produces something other than good history. The unthinking particularist becomes a kind of antiquarian, collecting factoids and minutia, content never to connect them to one another. This person has no concept of or desire for knowledge of mankind as a whole or justice as a virtue. The more thoughtful man who becomes a particularist is likely a kind of agnostic, someone who recognizes that history cannot produce complete knowledge of general things, but concludes that there is no reason to try to hold together the tension. He is typically a bitter soul, someone who longs for general knowledge but does not believe it possible. The unthinking generalist becomes a Whig historian in the most pejorative sense of the term, shoehorning the complications of the past into broad categories that are inadequate to describe it. The thinking generalist is ultimately a philosopher, someone who realizes that history is always bound up with the particular and lays it aside in favor of another vocation.

History, then, is a curious thing, with one foot in the mud of earth and another on the clouds of heaven. It's not for everyone, but I'm rather happy with that tension.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to read some Herodotus.

Today's image of R. G. Collingwood comes from Ovi Magazine.