Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
I’m not well acquainted with many members of Generation Z – the commonly accepted designation for those who were born between the mid-1990s and 2010 – but I do have a couple of them in my family, I’ve talked to parents about their Gen Z kids, and I’ve watched some of those kids’ favorite “influencers” online. The impression I get, while based on very limited anecdotal evidence, is unsettling.
All too many of them experience the world largely through their devices, and to have trouble with real-life human contact. To an alarming extent, they’re prisoners of presentism, ignorant of and indifferent to history and hyper-aware of this week’s hottest fads, jargon, and pop-culture phenomena. Many are narcissists of the first order (if you don’t believe it, check out one of the countless online videos in which members of this cohort yammer on at heroic length about their pronouns and gender identity). They’re also, as the expression goes, so open-minded that their brains have fallen out, reflexively giving unreflecting assent to trendy ideologies about everything from climate change to transgenderism.
This mess didn’t happen overnight, or spring out of nowhere. As long ago as 1994, in Dictatorship of Virtue, Richard Bernstein cautioned that the rise of multiculturalism in the schools didn’t bode well; in The Victims’ Revolution (2012), I warned about identity-studies programs. Books like Harry R. Lewis’s Excellence without a Soul (2006) and Anthony T. Kronman’s Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (2007) blasted educators’ apathy toward deeper questions. In iGen (2017), Jean Twenge explored technology’s impact on the younger set.
Now there’s a new volume to put on that bookshelf. If you’re a lost tourist in Gen Z-land, Jeremy S. Adams’s Hollowed Out: A Warning about America’s Next Generation is the guidebook you need. As Adams soberingly demonstrates, there’s no quick policy fix for these kids who, as he puts it, are nothing less than “bereft of an understanding of what it means to be fully human”; while materially rich, “they are utterly destitute in the realm of what we might call ‘human flourishing’ – fulfilling the timeless aspirations and deepest yearning of the human soul: to love, to know, to honor, to serve, to lead.”
A veteran high-school teacher, Adams shares some hair-raising tales of student ignorance: his charges know who Miley Cyrus is, but not Mike Pence. Yes, teachers have been making complaints like this forever: when I was a grad student in the early 1980s, teaching undergraduates slightly younger than myself, I was so stunned by their lack of general knowledge that I wrote a piece about it for the Los Angeles Times. But it’s not hard to believe that things have gotten much, much worse.“Teachers have a front row seat for America’s decline,” Adams writes – have you read a sadder sentence lately? – and as he proceeds to fill in the grim details, it’s hard to argue with him.
Just for starters, these kids are lonely. Many take meals alone while staring at a screen. Many have no real friends. “[C]onditioned to fear the outside world,” they’re more comfortable meeting online than in person. They lack real-world skills – driving, doing laundry. And they lack the “existential anxiety” that might drive them to seek meaning, say, in great books. Religion isn’t even a matter of curiosity for them: pondering the “eternal questions,” Adams frets, isn’t on their radar. I’d push back a bit on this one, arguing that most of this goes for most teens in any generation – who, after all, still believe on some level that they’re immortal.
But Adams is on to something here. It used to be that you developed interests during your teens (or even earlier) that took you beyond yourself and gave your life fresh meaning – sometimes a very deep meaning indeed. Some kids had a sport that consumed them. Some, taking long walks in the woods or swimming in the local creek, communed with nature (though they might never have put it that way). Others fell in love with art or cooking or with some handicraft that made them feel connected to the artisans of previous eras. Or just plain fell in love. In my teens, I developed an interest in geology, and tapping away with a rock pick at stones in a New Jersey quarry I felt I was probing the earth’s very secrets; playing piano, I felt I was speaking a transcendent universal language.
Such stuff is a key part of growing up. But how can you have any sense of transcending reality when, thanks to your online addiction, you’re barely in touch with reality itself? Even as the Internet promises the world at your fingertips, what it provides for kids not yet acquainted with the world is a two-dimensional simulacrum of it, stripped of all but the most superficial aspects of real human contact. Years ago, Adams recalls, his students found the story of his and his wife’s courtship sweet; today, they’re turned off by the notions of romance, sexual fidelity, and long-term commitment. Despite the unprecedented sexual freedom they enjoy, many of these kids are “incels” (involuntary celibates), frozen by “fear of intimacy and commitment”; others are able to enter into physical relationships, but flit from flower to flower, better at managing the carnal than the emotional. No surprise: in all the tons of pop culture they’ve consumed, there’s not one tender love song or love story.
If one gripe about earlier generations of students was their indifference to education for its own sake, too many kids today are turned off not only by learning but by the idea of real achievement, let alone (dare one say it?) greatness. As for all the Dead White Males whom teachers like Adams have presented to them as great, they’ve already learned to despise them as bigots. They’d love to be rich and famous – their lives revolve, to a depressing extent, around shallow mediocrities (many of them their own age) who’ve made fortunes by engaging in some ridiculous online activity that will seem silly and worthless in a year or so – but they aren’t enthusiastic about pursuing any line of work that might be personally meaningful and of long-term social or cultural value. For them, success is a blue Twitter check mark and the accumulation of “followers” and “likes.”
I’d disagree with Adams on some matters, though many of our differences are probably semantic. Adams describes Gen Z kids as displaying “a radicalized, atomized form of individualism, a cult of the Self, of the Almighty ‘I,’ a celebration of me-ism that would make Narcissus blush”; but I’d distinguish between individualism (which is admirable) and the reigning postmodern groupthink that encourages, yes, grotesque narcissism even as it compels lockstep ideological assent and a fixation on identity labels. Adams complains about young adults who “make their passion their career,” but whose “workism” can’t fill the “hollowness” they feel; again, I’d contrast an ardent love of a meaningful profession (also admirable) to an obsessive careerism driven by blind acquisitiveness and raw ambition to scale the corporate ladder. Also, Adams links academic underachievement with poverty; but what about all the dirt-poor Asian immigrants who preach disciplined study – and whose kids thrive academically? Finally – like many teachers, alas – Adams knocks Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose attempted reforms he views as attacks on his profession, while praising charter-school critic and teachers’ union champion Diane Ravitch.
But these are minor quibbles about an estimable and often movingly eloquent book (which, by the way, includes as an appendix the full text of the 1976 Report, the Trump administration’s response to the New York Times’s reprehensible 1619 Project). Explaining his enthusiasm for America, Adams is nothing less than stirring:
My unvarnished belief that the creation of the United States of America was one of the most extraordinary pivots in human history because it sought to extricate humanity from the shackles of perpetual subjugation. America meant no feudalism, no religious wars, no state-centered society. The creation of the United States was a philosophical revolution made political reality on a continental scale….I believe with every ounce of my being that the winning recipe for a meaningful life is to be found in the philosophy of the founders, the country they gave us, and the opportunities that exist here for those with the gumption, the dedication, and, yes, the optimism to pursue them.
And then there is this lovely passage about – well – life itself:
All of us have this strange privilege of life, this most extraordinary, almost ineffable blessing of simply being alive, of winning the cosmic lottery, of being dropped into the fabric of time – albeit briefly – endowed with thoughts, feelings, and a finite number of scenes to play within the drama of existence. The great question is how to make ourselves worthy of this incredible gift.
To read sentences like this is to think: how splendid to have such an inspiring teacher! But most of Adams’s students, he tells us, are incapable of being infected by his ardor for America and his joyful gratitude for life. Marinated since infancy in a toxic culture of “cheap cynicism,” they’re inclined to support the iconoclastic violence of Antifa and BLM but are immune to optimism or patriotism (they won’t pledge allegiance to the flag or sing the national anthem) or to the kind of romantic ideas about human existence that have taken possession of young people over thousands of generations and propelled them into lives of meaning, nobility, and consequence.
It seems to me that if most Gen Z students are beyond the reach of even this teacher, then there really is no hope. But Adams disagrees. “Where there is youth,” he insists, “there is great hope.” With love, with compassion, he insists, those of us who know that there’s more to life than TikTok videos can yet bring light into these kids’ darkness, and help them fill the void within. Well, I hope he’s right. But for now the prospects look pretty bleak.