Tim Elmore came to Emmanuel College in early August as our guest speaker for faculty workshop week, and every faculty member present got a free copy of this book. His workshop presentation derived more or less point-for-point from the book, and I could tell that he imagined the speaking tour and the book as two parts of one whole. (For what he’s doing, that’s not a bad thing.) I’ll admit that I’m more impressed by the book than I was by his talk–for whatever reason, his talk spent much more time on the “side charts” that aren’t part of the book’s central argument, and I fear that he missed an opportunity to advance what in the book stands as a fairly clear-minded analysis of things.
Elmore’s diagnosis of Generation iY (those born between 1990 and 2001) is somewhat bleak, reminiscent of Mark Bauerlein’s in The Dumbest Generation. (Not coincidentally, Bauerlein and Elmore are friends.) Their attention spans are shorter than those of earlier student cohorts, their sense of morality will condemn a litterbug but shrug at someone who falsifies information on a resume, and their sense of entitlement makes them nightmares to have in a classroom or to hire as an entry-level employee. (It’s gratifying to read that folks in the corporate world, who hold a paycheck over their heads, also can’t get anywhere with them.) Elmore, an evangelical Christian and longtime friend of Emmanuel College, points to certain tendencies among these kids’ Generation X and Baby Boomer parents as the root causes: the parents of affluent teenagers and twenty-somethings (I’ll get to my critique of his apparent sample later) have tended to be parents who refuse to let their kids taste even a small bit of failure; who overschedule their kids’ lives so that they never have to decide what to do with an afternoon; who run damage control so that there are never any consequences for unwise decisions; who inflate their kids’ egos and expectations of the world in an overreaction to (what I see as) the Social Darwinism within which they grew up; and who put attention-sucking electronic devices in kids’ hands and then fawn over how “tech-savvy” they are (any college teacher who’s ever assigned even a rudimentary web project knows how funny this claim is). He’s not all gloom and doom, of course. (If he were, he’s just be plagiarizing Bauerlein.) He thinks that this group of students adapts just as well to adult responsibility and perhaps has an even more developed sense of morality than us jaded Gen-Xers; their main problem is that adults, and especially parents, have kept them from developing such capacities.
One of the striking images he provides for this (not that his stories are uniformly helpful) has to do with a butterfly emerging from a cocoon: As a child, as Elmore tells it, he discovered a cocoon on a branch just as the organism inside started to make its way out into the world. Being the helpful soul he was, he used his fingernails to help the little booger force the cocoon open a bit wider. When the butterfly still did not emerge, he forced the opening a bit wider, and when that still did not yield a butterfly, he broke the cocoon entirely open. What emerged, in the story, was a deformed animal, nothing like a butterfly but without the promise of a true caterpillar. It died shortly thereafter.
The point of the allegory is clear enough: he was acting as so many parents have, and the overgrown children that have resulted are not ready to fly. Elmore diagnoses nicely a generation of American youth that’s at once overscheduled but without much of an aim in life; convinced that they can do anything they set their minds to but without the discipline to set their butts down and study (I’ll save the joke about whether they have minds); and ruthlessly amoral one minute but moralistically self-righteous the next. His solutions for parents, unfortunately, seem to hinge upon the assumption that every middle-class parent has access to the social connections to which he, as a corporate trainer, has access. He tells stories about how he introduced his daughter to Congresswomen and surgeons to act as short-term mentors but has few suggestions for folks (like me) who don’t have personal connections with Congresswomen. When he gets to his son the boasting gets even more grand: he had Tony Dungy talk to his son and some of the neighborhood kids; had USMC colonels visit with them; and received personal letters for each of the neighborhood’s teenage boys from the President of the United States. (He doesn’t specify which one, but that’s not material to my point.) I can imagine rough analogies to these experiences that a small-time English professor might bring to bear, but if I were to go strictly from the text itself, I’d assume that Elmore knows that there’s going to be an aristocracy, based on the ability to expose one’s children to the powerful, that rises out of this moment, and that he’s the proud papa of two of those aristocrats.
But not all is that far over the top. For college teachers (and I are one), these changing realities within the students we teach (and I’ve been at this long enough to teach the last Gen-Xers at the outset of my teaching career and observe the early Gen-Y shade over into the text-message-addicted iY) mean that students are going to complain more, do less of the traditional work assigned, and otherwise buck against the ways of teaching that have certainly changed with the advent of mass-printed textbooks but nonetheless have remained basically static for a couple hundred years. His pedagogical solutions actually strike me as more helpful than his parenting tips: he calls for teachers to adapt as the students will have to, not trading content for toys but imagining how differently to frame and deliver the content (as in the fifth canon of rhetoric, not as in UPS). It’s a philosophy of education I was on-board with even back in 2000, when I constructed rudimentary html pages for my composition courses, and although I’m less optimistic about Len Sweet’s EPIC model of communication than Elmore is, I do agree that education, because a historically contingent practice, gains and loses horizons as history happens, and clinging to horizons no longer available is not properly conservative but antiquarian. And although I love me an obscure old text as much as the next guy, I know full well that such things are the province of the specialist researcher, not the dedicated educator.
Although the book’s diagnosis of the glut of electronic distractions, and especially his solutions to the problems, tend to center almost exclusively on affluent suburban American (and to some extent western European) families, he does note well that, due to rising birth rates and sharply dropping infant mortality rates in the last twenty or so years, this global age-cohort has actually eclipsed the vaunted Baby Boom of the early automobile age. And as geographic mobility became easy and accessible (so that young men could easily enough leave town when girls got pregnant) and social mobility declined (so that fewer and fewer could support a family financially), giant swaths of this enormous global younger generation have known nothing of life with a present father. (If any feminists are still reading at this point, I’d love to read your take on the complexities of this reality.) In America, where that global swell of mobile-but-desperate human beings has meant that the wealthy and powerful can find abundant desperation to exploit (they call the phenomenon “cheap labor” and attribute it to “global economic forces,” but I for one prefer to call it what it is), this has translated into a job market for the children of affluence which rewards the intelligent and tenacious but which cannot seem to find any tenacity. And in the two-thirds world, this has meant a deterioration of the wisdom of the elders and a ready supply of young, bored men for warlords, terrorists, and other postmodern criminals to exploit. And they have. The book does not say nearly as much about women of this generation, and for that reason, again, I welcome feminist reactions to the book and to this review.
Overall, although the book tends towards alarmism at points and towards boasting rather than solutions at others, the diagnosis end of things is worthwhile–Elmore recognizes that whatever moral and professional shortcomings “kids these days” exhibit are best studied with an eye on the complex interactions of global economic/political trends, changes in the mindsets of parents, and an array of other variables. For college teachers and youth ministers and other such folks, this easy-reading book is not a bad place to continue our thinking on such things.