These Kids Today: Engaging The “Smug Generation”

It’s been a while since I’ve been here. As always, life has a habit of getting in the way. But while I was away, I never stopped thinking about all the things I shouldn’t be thinking about. I have still been trying to engage students who have no desire to be engaged and I have never stopped wondering how we got here from there in education.

The Smug Generation.

In the sixties we created a generation of people who are the movers and shakers (and, yes, the slackers and criminals) of today. People, now in their 40’s and 50’s, who had the benefit of a typical (of the time) public school education and went on to be entrepreneurs, businessmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers, firemen, sanitation workers, astronauts and so on and did so without the benefit of calculators, cell phones or the Internet.

Today we are teaching a generation of kids, The Smug Generation according to Sarah Vine of Times Online, who are defined by their desire for acknowledgment and their need for connectivity. “It’s an irresistible image: a society so softened by wealth and creature comforts that it has produced a group of offspring entirely unaware of its shortcomings,” she writes in an article titled “Generation Smug: today’s little darlings or tomorrow’s little monsters?” An entire generation completely obsessed with money and posting pictures of themselves on-line, valuing entertainment over effort and reward over respect. “Narcissistic praise junkies” is what this generation of young people are called by the United States Navy.

When Did This Happen?

This current generation of young people has never been offline, has never been without a cell phone or a computer. They have never known a world without cable TV or without dozens of cable networks aimed directly at them. They have never had to make it through the world without  iPods or Gameboys or X-Boxes. Today’s rising college students have never know a world without cheap and instant gratification where their entertainment needs are concerned. And let’s not forget about the Internet.

The Internet today is, I am almost certain, not what it was originally envisioned to be. What was once touted as the “Galactic Network”, a global tool for information exchange has become a driving force for commercialism and socializing. MySpace, Facebook, Flikr and You Tube are just some of the ways that “these kids today” have shaped and changed the Internet. But these changes to the Internet have resulted in changes to our society. In the Navy report it states, “Teens are creating new forms of social behavior that blur the distinction between online and real-world interactions — and largely ignore the difference between the two.”

Students in my classes brag about the number of friends they have. One young lady was overheard saying “I have over a thousand friends…” I wondered about that and asked her where she met so many people. “On Facebook,” was her reply. I have to wonder if our definition of “friend” has changed over the years. Not so long ago a friend was someone who would help you move a sofa or let you talk endlessly about a problem without offering advice. Just listening. A friend is the person who doesn’t mind if you go into their refrigerator and grab a drink without asking. Friends were people that we have actually met. Now? Many of our kids are walking around with lists of “virtual friends.” People they have never met except on-line. NPR commentator, Peter Sagal, says that there is something “vaguely creepy” about using “friend” as a verb as in, “I met someone on Facebook and friended her.” But he also admits that he has a Facebook page and over 900 virtual friends. I will also admit that I have a Facebook page and I have 6 virtual friends. Of my 6 virtual friends, I have, at one time or another, actually met 5 of them.

So What?

Is all of this really a problem? In my experience it can be. How can a school be asked to compete with Facebook, iPods, Nickleodeon, The Cartoon Network, the allure of text messages or any one of the hundreds of ways that our students seek their instant gratification. It’s easy to fall back on cliches like “If I had a nickle for every time a kid said ‘This is boring’ to me I could retire tomorrow.” At the best of times, school can be boring. But when asked to compete with the entertainment media, we fail miserably. It can’t be done. I can talk all day, offer hands-on, real-world relevancy, seminar, make Power Points, incorporate the Internet into lessons and still can’t engage my “narcissistic praise junkies.” I can’t sing (doesn’t stop me though), can’t dance and I am not a sophisticated comedian like, say, Spongebob. No matter what I do, I fall short.

If I roll out the computer lab, I spend the day getting the kids to log out of their e-mail accounts or Facebook pages. Even though Facebook is blocked at the state Internet server, the students know every easy (and not so easy) way to get around the block. I actually look at this as a bright side. If my students have the problem solving skills it takes to circumvent a government Internet block, then they can certainly apply those skills to other career related problems, right? Or can they?

The Dumbest Generation.

Mike Morford of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote an article he called, “American Kids, dumber than dirt.” In it, he recounts an ongoing conversation with a local teacher. The teacher “speaks not merely of the sad decline in overall intellectual acumen among students over the years, not merely of the astonishing spread of lazy slackerhood, or the fact that cell phones and iPods and excess TV exposure are, absolutely and without reservation, short-circuiting the minds of the upcoming generations. Of this, he says, there is zero doubt…We are, as far as urban public education is concerned, essentially at rock bottom. We are now at a point where we are essentially churning out ignorant teens who are becoming ignorant adults and society as a whole will pay dearly, very soon, and if you think the hordes of easily terrified, mindless fundamentalist evangelical Christian lemmings have been bad for the soul of this country, just wait.

The teacher, Morford writes, “cites studies, reports, hard data, from the appalling effects of television on child brain development (i.e.; any TV exposure before 6 years old and your kid’s basic cognitive wiring and spatial perceptions are pretty much scrambled for life), to the fact that, because of all the insidious mandatory testing teachers are now forced to incorporate into the curriculum, of the 182 school days in a year, there are 110 when such testing is going on somewhere at (his school).”

Can it really be this huge a problem? Johnny can’t read because of the media? Is his need to be acknowledged for accomplishments, while having never really accomplished anything, keeping him from knowing the multiplication tables? Because of No Child Left Behind, creativity is lost on an entire generation? Or is the problem just a shift in the generation gap? Are our teachers and administrators aware that the model family no longer resembles “Leave it to Beaver?” Do they realize that today’s students can’t even hear the name of that old TV show without giggling? Do they realize the depth of the competition they are facing and that “The Scarlet Letter” has absolutely zero relevance to teenagers? I would like to think so. Otherwise, an entire generation of teachers are out of touch and, as Mike Morford’s teacher friend states, we really are “at rock bottom.”


About ex8404

I used to do the news but Journalism is dead. Now I teach. And teaching is dead. For the right amount of money, I will come and kill your career field as well. View all posts by ex8404

2 responses to “These Kids Today: Engaging The “Smug Generation”

  • Samantha Goldslipper

    wow Jim, very nice post! I had a few thoughts that hit me while I read, so you know me, I’ll toss em out there : )

    First, is our society really any different than any other throughout the course of human history, in terms of the breakdown between the educated elite and the uneducated population? I would love to hear Jared Diamond or someone in a related field comment on that.

    Second, if you add up all of the competencies that our students have accumulated over the years, including knowing how to navigate all of the internet, text, social networking, media technology, couldn’t you pose the argument that we are WAY WAY smarter than we ever were, and that in fact, it IS just a matter of relevance? Are these not real accomplishments? Why do we need to place a negative value on them?

    Out of these kids and their media-driven lives, will probably come some amazing thing that you or I will benefit from. Sure, about 88 percent of them will be doing low-level jobs for most of their lives, but heck, it’s always been that way, right?

    Also, I’m kinda thinking that the virtual social networking is waaaaay more valuable than people might want to give it credit for. Sure, today your students are just accumulating folks for the count. But, in the process, they are also learning how to seek out and “friend” individuals who might have a common interest. When their needs mature, won’t that serve them in some way, in the real or virtual world? As I raise my children, one of the things that I hope they learn, is the importance of being able to create a network of individuals around them that can help them when needed, and to whom they can be helpful.

    Last, but not least, do you think that our virtual friendship is meaningless? I’ve asked myself that question, and come down with a clear NO answer. You have been a motivator (getting me to start a very successful little blog, and learning a new skill), a resource (helping me with technology issues), and just plain fun to chat with. I have found some really special people through the virtual “friending” process, whether they are unschoolers, gamers, moms, etc. I have met some of these virtual folks in the real world, and they have enriched my life immensely. I think that part of the challenge, too, in our diverse society, is finding and connecting with the people who DO understand you, and if the kids can do that, more power to them, right?

    Okay, that’s it, you know my brain is wired differently, but I LOVE your posts Jim, they are always such good food for thought!!!! Thanks for being here, and putting your stuff out here too!

  • Samantha Goldslipper

    and oh yeah, you are welcome to raid our virtual refrigerator any time, friend : )

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