I spend a lot of time with teachers—elementary school teachers, secondary school teachers, teachers of undergraduates, and graduate school professors. Teachers are good people, and they all have certain things in common, from the kindergarten teacher to the dissertation director. One quirky-but-endearing quality teachers share is complaining about the declining quality of students.
I think teachers have always complained about the students of the moment. Students “today” are always lesser in some way than students were in the past. This is where that famous quote attributed to Plato (or was it Socrates?) could be cited, the one about how youth today don’t obey their elders or respect tradition:
The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.
The message of the quote is that students today are like students of the past. The “truth” illustrated by the passage is that older people are never happy with younger people; as we get older, we become less forgiving of youth.
To complicate matters, the authenticity of the quote is suspect at best, much like the wisdom of our judgments about today’s young people.
The point I’m working toward is that while it is easy to locate anecdotal evidence about the decline of contemporary youth, what older people or teachers think about young people is not adequate evidence on which to make such a claim. For my own part, I have been a teacher since 1982, and I can recall teachers making the claim that “this year’s group is the worst I’ve ever seen” throughout my career. Both logic and common sense would suggest that if every year’s group was the worst ever, it shouldn’t take more than a decade or two for our species to devolve to the point that we could no longer function intellectually or socially.
Of course, we could point to the state of popular culture as evidence that this is, in fact, happening. Or, we could point to the continuing development of high technology as evidence of the opposite.
Perhaps the best we can say is that we can’t really say, at least not without calling in more quantifiable evidence to support the claim that the species is improving, declining, or stuck in status quo limbo.
Now that technology and the popular culture have been introduced into the discussion, we can certainly demonstrate the rapidly changing toys today’s young people have had access to.
So this might be a good spot for one of those lists of things kids today know nothing about (e.g., pay phones, cassette recorders, etc.), and that could be followed by a discussion (often a lamentation) about how contemporary young people’s minds don’t work as well as previous generations because of the new thing they have grown up with. Today we complain about the effects of the smart phone on our students’ behaviors and thought processes. When I was a young person, our teachers complained about how my generation had grown up with television. No doubt when the one-room schoolhouse teachers of the depression era got together to commiserate, they complained about the effects of radio on their students.
However . . .
I spend a lot of time with teachers, and I hear again and again a concern about a mental health crisis among students. This seems different to me somehow that the usual grousing of an older generation, but it is hard to be sure. Depression isn’t a new thing. Neither is bi-polar disorder or anxiety disorders. We can argue about the extent of substance abuse problems among young people and whether ADHD is really a condition or something created by the pharmaceutical industry, but we can’t deny that these issues are present in student populations.
I think it is obvious people are much more willing to admit to and seek treatment for mental health concerns today than in previous generations, and I think it is obvious this is a good thing. It would follow then that mental health concerns were underreported in the past.
However . . .
I spend a lot of time with teachers, and I believe them when they say we have a mental health crisis in our student population and that what is happening in this area today is qualitatively different that in the past. We can talk about how society has changed and the influence of technology and economics and the availability of one thing or another, and some (maybe all) of these are contributing factors.
This is the point where someone will inject a real or imagined decline in morality into the conversation. We typically associate this argument with the political right, but it can be found elsewhere as well.
With all due respect, I remember the 1970s, and I do not think the general level of morality in our society has declined since that time. If anything, I believe the opposite is true, but my belief here is just another bit of anecdotal evidence. It isn’t “real” in the data-based sense. I understand we could have perfectly enjoyable argument about this, and that might be fun, but it would be counter productive.
Whether we have a mental health crisis or not, we certainly have young people in pain, and this is the place where anecdotal evidence is more than adequate. We all have stories about lives destroyed by mental illness, and each story is tragic. What we need is the resolve and determination and resources to support young people and their teachers.
We are starting to recognize the seriousness of the problems, and we can point to early efforts to place social and emotion well-being on the instructional radar of schools as well as new programs to assist students in crisis. These are solid, important steps forward.
However . . .
We need much more.
I spend a lot of time with teachers, and we have our problems.