A Hollowed-Out Democracy
An interview with author and educator Jeremy Adams.
Mark Tapson is the Shillman Fellow on Popular Culture for the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
It is no secret that America’s education system has been failing our children and our country for over a half-century now, ever since the radical left realized that subverting American institutions from within was more effective than outright domestic terrorism. But thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and remote-learning mandates, parents have gotten a glimpse of just how insidious and shocking the dumbing-down and ideological indoctrination are. Parental outrage has led to confrontations with bullying teachers unions, hostile school boards, and tone-deaf political leaders who declare openly that parents shouldn’t have a say in their children’s education.
A recent book from Regnery Press addresses this hot-button topic and laments a whole generation or more of American youth whose brains as well as souls have been “hollowed out” by ideological brainwashing, technological distraction, the disintegration of families, and the collapse of moral and civic virtues. Hollowed Out: A Warning about America's Next Generation, by Jeremy S. Adams, explores the different facets of this disheartening crisis, but also concludes with a rallying cry for action from a California teacher writing from within the very belly of the beast.
A graduate of Washington & Lee University and CSU Bakersfield, Jeremy Adams was the first classroom teacher inducted into the California State University, Bakersfield, Hall of Fame. He has written on politics and education for the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sacramento Bee, and many other outlets. Our mutual friend Evan Sayet, conservative political commentator and himself the author of The Woke Supremacy: An Anti-Socialist Manifesto and KinderGarden Of Eden: How the Modern Liberal Thinks, put me in touch with Adams to talk a bit about Hollowed Out.
Mark Tapson: Jeremy, thanks for the insightful dissection of the state of our culture you’ve put forth in this book. Lamenting the divide that partisan politics has created in our country, you write, “Our democracy is hollowed out because the habits, the relationships, the institutions, and the values that allow us to become thoughtful, compassionate, magnanimous, and informed citizens no longer shape and define us in the ways they once did.” Can you give us a couple of key examples?
Jeremy Adams: I wish I could go back and add the word “content” or “fulfilled” or “joyful” to that list because every day the evidence is mounting about just how miserable—uniquely miserable, in fact—our young people have become. As to their civic deficiencies, the basic problem is a profound lack of knowledge and awareness of what went in to creating the institutions of our civilization. Almost everything they see is a consequence, they believe, of malevolent power being exercised against innocent bystanders in society.
A few examples: we have commercial institutions that create wealth and prosperity and yet what young people often see in economic activity is exploitation. I had a student recently try to tell me that capitalism cannot survive without a permanent underclass. And yet when we peeled back the layers, what was really being said was that there will always be a need for low-skilled workers which, everyone knows, is actually good news for anybody trying to enter the labor market for the first time. And what never gets said, of course, is that people who work hard, get educated, and are diligent don’t stay in a low-skilled job for long. They see political power almost always as an oppressive force and never as a tool for working for justice, which also requires significant political will. They don’t know anything about LBJ and Civil Rights. They don’t know anything about Daniel Webster and the Compromise of 1850.
And then this obsession with power gets carried into private life--families are seen as inherently patriarchal, organized religion is full of negative judgement, all institutions are seen as corrupt and unworthy of veneration. It’s a dark and dyspeptic worldview that most people don’t fully understand.
MT: In the book you identify some of the social, cultural, and political fault lines between older and younger generations of Americans, fault lines that seem to be dangerously widening, like the collapse of the traditional family and declining religious belief. How do we begin to repair those gaps?
JA: Well, it needs to be said that the adults have got to start adulting again. There are no quick fixes, no clever institutional or relational patches. The hollowing out of our children has been a gradual process perpetuated by a culture of radical individualism, an obsession with devices and the pivot away from in-person life, a fixation with the frivolity of consumerism, amusement, and the cult of celebrity. It will take time and it will be hard.
But it isn’t rocket science. Limit device time. Eat together as a family. Stop teaching that the United States was conceived as one ambitious project of oppression in perpetuity. Expose children to religion anew. Stop the gospel of ease—and by that I mean acknowledge that the most meaningful elements in life are almost always difficult. There are no trophies for sleeping. You can’t lose weight without eating and exercising. You can’t have a libertine view of sex and hope for enduring and loving commitments. Building wealth requires a lot of time and in most cases a tremendous work ethic. Mastering anything—a language, a skill, whatever—requires profound sacrifice. Greatness isn’t a chance, it’s a choice, a choice fewer and fewer young people seem willing to make. The studies are clear that this is a generation that wants the wealth without the arduousness of hard work.
But at the end of the day what we are talking about is an ancient concept—virtue. Virtue can’t be inherited or bestowed. It always must be earned. This is why the ancients said, “character is destiny.” In The Apology Socrates famously says, “Wealth does not bring excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for me.”
MT: What is the danger in inculcating high school and college kids, as many intellectuals and educators do today, with the “modified fatalism” which teaches them that “the American dream is unavailable to them, that social injustices doom them to failure, that systemic, ‘structural’ forces will deprive them of opportunity”?
JA: If I am being charitable, I think many of us who read the social science research are sympathetic, deeply sympathetic, in fact, to the high hurdles placed in front of students through no fault of their own—poverty, failing schools, a lack of adult role models, socialization through iPads and cell phones, the omniscience of drug abuse and violence. All of these variables in the life of a young person are real, they are deep, and they doom too many young people to lives that are not being maximized.
But the worst thing we can tell young people is they cannot help but perpetuate social pathologies. We can understand bad behavior but that is different than excusing it. We can sympathize with students’ difficult circumstances but that does not mean the adults who know better shouldn’t insist on habits and behaviors that are a ticket towards a better and more fruitful life. Every single one of us has a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Much of what we do goes towards fulfilling the story we tell. I tell myself I am a good father so I play with my son even if I’d rather watch TV. I tell myself I am a good teacher so I go the extra mile in class rather than show a movie. If we tell young people they are victims and have no agency then they will respond accordingly. The great achievement of a teacher or mentor is not teaching curriculum, it is getting students to reframe how they think of themselves and their own lives.
It is hard for me to be a fatalist when I witness so many young people achieve great things despite the hurdles they face. They all have one thing in common: they believed they could do it. Somewhere along the way they conceived of themselves as agents of choice rather than pawns of fatalism. And that makes all the difference.
MT: From what you have experienced with your own students, what has been the impact of social media on their worldview, their grasp of history and socio-political issues, even their perception of truth?
JA: This cannot be said often or loud enough: we are losing an entire generation. Their brains, their attention spans, their worldviews, their relationships or lack thereof, their sense of a moral hierarchy—all of it has been generationally corrupted by their monomaniacal obsession with devices and online minutiae. Think of all the things that have been crowded out by the devotion and insistence on 8-10 hours a day of staring at a screen. Reading has vanished. Dating is in decline. Kids don’t go to movies or football games like they used to. The most recent research suggests teen attention spans are roughly 65 seconds before they get fidgety and their concentration starts to wane.
It’s not just that they are being exposed to pornography at a young age or that so many of the videos they watch require no thought or reflection. It is the method of communication that worries me most. Online life is snarky. It peddles in cynicism and the fetishization of constant aggrievement. It is sarcastic. It is ironic. Recently, I re-watched one of my favorite all-time movies, Dead Poets Society. I loved the John Keating character played by Robin Williams and yet if young people were to watch that movie today his earnestness, his genuine vulnerability, his unvarnished romanticism about the classroom would come off like a fool. He’d be mocked. The students would want to know the dirt on the poets he was teaching. They’d want to know how this applies to getting a job someday. It’s demoralizing.
MT: You close the book with an impassioned clarion call for educators to fill in the “hollow” in younger generations and remind students of “our country’s history, its extraordinary achievements, its still bountiful promise and potential.” Do you foresee a grassroots revival of that kind of spirit happening as a reaction to the kind of nihilism and anti-Americanism being taught in Critical Race Theory programs and the 1619 Project?
JA: I think a grand and noble correction of our cultural excesses is on its way. Before Hollowed Out, my previous books were all professional development projects that didn’t incur the ire of anyone, much less the types of verbal arrows and random hostile e-mails I’ve received the past few months.
And yet, the headlines from the past few months confirm everything I was trying to warn about in Hollowed Out. The pandemic that is most lethal to young Americans is the mental health crisis seen with spikes in suicide, self-harm, and debilitating levels of anxiety. Marriage and birth rates are in free fall. The broader social trends include more murder, more opioid deaths, more instability in schools which have traditionally been citadels of constancy. David Brooks at the New York Times is writing columns entitled, “America Is Falling Apart at the Seams” to which I want to reply, “Well, yeah David, we teachers have been seeing this for a while. I just wrote a book about it.”
You have school board meetings with parents saying, “stop worrying so much about social emotional learning and focus on content, skills, and socialization. Stop using schools as meccas for chic racial training and teach the history of the country, both the good and the bad.” So, yes, I think we are starting to recognize just how deep our problems are which, of course, is the first step in finding solutions.