Invincible America

No one, says psychologist Dr. Friedman:
We marvel at the resilient child who survives the most toxic parents and home environment and goes on to a life of success. Yet the converse — the notion that some children might be the bad seeds of more or less decent parents — is hard to take.

It goes against the grain not just because it seems like such a grim and pessimistic judgment, but because it violates a prevailing social belief that people have a nearly limitless potential for change and self-improvement. After all, we are the culture of Baby Einstein, the video product that promised — and spectacularly failed — to make geniuses of all our infants.

Not everyone is going to turn out to be brilliant — any more than everyone will turn out nice and loving. And that is not necessarily because of parental failure or an impoverished environment. It is because everyday character traits, like all human behavior, have hard-wired and genetic components that cannot be molded entirely by the best environment, let alone the best psychotherapists.

Besides playing on my biggest fear about parenthood (what if your kids are just plain rotten?!) the article brought to mind another point made, much more lyrically and with a healthy dose of cynicism, by Jason Peters: Too many people are going to college, and college itself is ceasing to do much of anything but harm:
It may be—it is certainly so in some cases—that “higher education” is little more than a poorly wielded blunt sword that maybe strikes, but for the most part glances off, the heads and shoulders of young people, and I suppose this is lucky.

But not in an ideal college experience. There’s a risk to education, and education should be worth the risk, to say nothing of the cost. It should result in better and more thoughtful citizens of given places. It should culminate in full human beings who know better than to be enamored of abstractions. If I allow that education should be driven largely by content, I hasten to add that it should also be ethical, moral, and humane. It should be conducted with respect for both the future and the past, which is to say its should be conducted with measured suspicion of and admiration for both.

Young men and women, if they have been properly educated, should undergo a crisis of conscience analogous to physical growing pains.

By and large they don’t. They undergo a closing of conscience–and of consciousness. They are introduced only to the easiest of moralities—“tolerate difference.”

[. . .]

It is difficult to imagine handing over democracy to such people, but we really don’t have any other choice. We can’t exactly hand it over to the cows.

And of course there’s the other kind of student who will not suffer any crisis of conscience whatsoever. He is the student who has been raised by fundamentalists, either religious or secular. He arrives at college knowing he will be assaulted and he is determined from the start to withstand the assault. He believes St. Matthew was written first and Revelation last. Or he believes all facts of existence can be explained in terms of natural selection, or by brain states, or by the subconscious. The great catastrophe of his existence is that mystery has been dismissed before he even gets a chance really to be confronted by it. He was raised by parents who on Sunday mornings either went Jesus-hunting at the Bible Chapel or warbler-hunting at the Cathedral of the Pines.

All of this is to say that there are both pervious and impervious students and that all of them are being introduced by “higher education” to a lower form of existence. Perhaps all of them are credulous young men and women, at best the trusting sons and daughters of trusting men and women who don’t know that they’re paying a lot of money so that their children can be told things that aren’t so by people who don’t know that they aren’t so.

Really, it's hard to summarize a good author -- you should read it all, though there is some mild adult language and a general jaded tone that belies his good nature.  (He's the brother of one of my dearest friends, so I've met him several times.)

I could (and do) heartily agree that college is too widely seen as an instant fix for everyone: students who did well in high school are expected to cement their social and vocational status with a degree or two, and those who blew off four years are told they can make a comeback with the next four.

I could (and do) also second Peters' suggestion that higher education should include compulsory manual labor -- food preparation, cleaning, gardening or something designed to teach them the value of visceral, tangible effort.  It's good enough for you that you should be forced to do it even if you wouldn't have chosen to.

However, I think the important point in both articles is that we (I speak for Americans, though probably some Western Europeans are following suit) are far too empowered for our own good.  We think we can do anything, from changing dispositions to changing intellect.  We are all such complex beings that it's ludicrous to try to pin ourselves to any one set of influences; we just don't know where our minds and personalities come from.  We've all met nasty people and simple people, and though we'd like to think they wouldn't ever exist in our families (or, God forbid, ourselves) odds are that some of us will have to accept that reality.  We just don't want to.