Depressing them softly


Over a space of a century or less, the developed world has gone from the one extreme where the education systems used to instill triumphalist values without much reflection to the other extreme where it’s all about creating guilt and despondency. “Are school curricula breeding school shooters?” asks Glenn Reynolds. Maybe not quite, but they certainly seem to be breeding generations weighed down by doubt about their societies and terrified about their future. Glenn’s question is prompted by a very interesting reader email:

I am curious whether anyone is looking at prevalent trends in English curricula and their impact on vulnerable kids.

I’m the mother of a 15 year-old boy who attends a (very white, very suburban) 7-12 private school. This year the school removed 1984 from the curriculum and replaced it with Parable of the Sower because – as my son’s English teacher (inaccurately) put it – it was written by a white male and featured a white protagonist. No Shakespeare for 10th graders this year: room had to be made for The Handmaid’s Tale.

This follows a pattern of feeding the students a steady diet of modern dystopian horrors that began with Ender’s Game (pre-seventh summer reading) and continues apace. The classics are blessed with irony, humor, and hope. The current curriculum – at least, at my son’s school – is bleak and depressing. My son used to love reading. Now I can barely persuade him to pick up a book in his free time.

I have nothing against modern literature, but my own healthy teenager admits these books drag him down. The essays the kids are required to write are also along the what-does-this-say-about-our-own-future variety. I find myself wondering if the net effect of the English and Science (all climate change, all the time) program is to take many otherwise hopeful young people and turn them into nihilists.

Is anyone looking at this? I have raised it with the school and the administration thinks I’m the crazy one. Of course, I rely not on facts and figures, but on my own fiftysomething reaction to the steady drumbeat of depressing modern fiction the kids are being fed.

You don’t have to be a vulnerable kid to be affected by this constant drumbeat of civilisational self-loathing and existential dread, though clearly some will be more vulnerable than others to the education-induced depression. But if you’re not vulnerable already, you will be made so by your schooling.

There is little doubt that the phenomenon the reader describes is a real one: classics are being replaced by new, more “worthy” and “relevant” works; society and its history are subject to unrelenting critique, with an exclusive focus on problems and negative aspects; science instead of inspiring hope inspires fear about the future instead.

The fact that majorities or near majorities of young people are so hot for socialism right now, while at the same time being deeply ignorant about what socialism entails, can be to a large extent laid at the feet of the education system, starting with primary schools. The Millennials and the Zs have grown up at the time of unprecedented prosperity and well-being, yet most think that the economic system and the society more broadly are broken and need a radical change. Such ignorance is not accidental, it’s taught. If all you hear from your teachers is the endless litany of your civilisation’s sins – imperialism and colonialism, war-mongering, exploitation and oppression, racism, patriarchy, slavery, environmental destruction – it’s little wonder our young people feel guilty about and ashamed of their heritage and don’t believe it’s actually worth preserving. If you are consistently told by the supposedly wise people in positions of authority that everything about the life around is problematic, of course most will believe it. Particularly since their education does not equip them with the necessary perspective and contextual knowledge to see through the official slanted version.

The denigration of history, tradition and achievement is aided by the cultural cleansing of the curriculum. The Western civilisation and culture are, after all, largely products of generations of dead white males – the privileged oppressor group. If you perpetuate their work you perpetuate their privilege and influence. Never mind that creators have always had very nuanced and varied attitudes to own society – it’s time to give the voiceless and the oppressed a go. So instead of classics, students get exposed to a lot of contemporary drivel that won’t stand the test of time; but it’s diverse and suitably critical of all aspects of existence, past, present and future, so it ticks all the relevant boxes.

Then there is the increasing belief among the youth that they are living in the last days of planet Earth.  Humanity – well, the developed, capitalist minority of which they are unwillingly part of – has brought life to the brink of extinction in the cataclysm of climate change and resource depletion. School children are going on strikes against carbon and their carbon-addicted elders, who they believe might have already stolen their futures. Life is not only a bitch but then you really die, and possibly well before your time. Thanks a lot, mum and dad and government, which won’t close down all the traditional fossil fuel power plants.

Is there any wonder that mental problems, like anxiety and depression, are a growing problem in children and young people? (the US and Australia, for example) The problem is not just the learned ignorance about the past and the present and the apprehension about the future, but even more so the mind frame such indoctrination produces: negative, pessimistic, anxious, distressed, nihilistic, susceptible to stress and poor in coping skills. Schools are far from the only culprit, but seeing young people spend there nearly half of their waking hours, they can’t escape their share of responsibility easily either.

It’s one of the sad ironies of the modern world that we are spending more and more money on education only to see the educational outcomes declining. But schools and universities are not only dumbing down the new generations, they are also traumatising them; it’s a double the negative bang for the buck. For God’s – and everyone’s – sake, teacher, leave them kids alone.