I recently came across a couple of articles that on their face spoke to two very different social phenomena. One by Umair Haque entitled “The Collapse of the First American Republic”, and the second by Peter Gray entitled “Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges”. As you can see from the titles, each has clear objectives to make to the reader: one being political, the other being social. My opinion is that both can be used to better understand the economic fatigue we are all experiencing today.
My world is education. As such, I do my best to engage with the critical issues and conversations being had in this world. Over the past few years, the conversation about the quality of our students in K-12 and post-secondary educational institutions has received a lot of press. One of the many topics that has received a lot of discussion is the matter of resilience. Mr. Gray’s article is an example of this discourse as it speaks to the perception of declining resilience in our children.
From K-12 to college, students are being assessed as weak, meek, and unable to “adult”. Some of the criticism is warranted, but I would like to move a large portion of the burden off the shoulders of the children, and place it squarely where it belongs, the adults. Mr. Haque’s article speaks to the social forces that have depleted our country’s ability to function as a healthy democracy: socioeconomic, political, and totalitarian capitalism. I will use the points and perspectives of Mr. Haque’s article to address the issues Mr. Gray presented in his in order to provide more clarity to the situation and elevate the role education can play in addressing the matters presented by both.
The Great Recession of the mid 2000’s robbed the middle class of savings and housing value. It also robbed them of stability and well-being. The families of our current high school and undergraduate population were hit hard by this economic crisis. The children saw their safety net crumble, or at the very least unravel. Parents were stressed out over how to make the next mortgage payment, or sometimes how to pay the electric bill. Children were pulled from the social activities that made up their world (scouts, sports, etc.), and made to stay at home and witness their parents struggle to figure out how to keep their families together. Some families didn’t survive the crisis, so many joined the ranks of the divorced. Often this brought moves to other places and communities, further introducing change into the lives of our students.
Dr. Gray’s article presents the issues colleges and universities are dealing with today. He relays conversations at faculty meetings that characterize students as lacking “grit”, and not having been given “the opportunity to get into trouble and find their own way out.” He also notes that there are “well-documented increases in anxiety and depression, and decreases in the sense of control of their own lives.” He goes on to introduce the concept of “helicopter parents” as a contributing factor to this near epidemic in students lacking skills to “do life”. Faculty and administrators are left scratching their heads on what they can do in response. Campus counseling centers are unable to meet the growing need of these students. Colleges and universities are left to wonder if this should be their role in the first place. After all, the majority of these students have parents.
Using Mr. Haque’s analysis, it is clear why we see the outcomes in our students that we do. First and foremost, the economic situation many of the students experienced have made them (and their parents) risk averse. There is very little economic and social cushion in their lives to weather or absorb trying and failing. Second, anxiety and depression are coping mechanisms for dealing with circumstances that you feel you have no control over. As children these students could do nothing to help their parents, and witnessed them struggle and often fail at recovering from their economic problems. It is no wonder that those children then entered college with a stunted emotional growth trajectory. They missed the balanced home life necessary for them to thrive. There is an economic fatigue that is difficult to articulate but is felt in every part of their being.
These circumstances have been experienced by black and brown children for many decades. The response by colleges and universities to them usually was that these students were not “cut out for college”. The response by the K-12 was to track these students away from college readiness programs to vocation programs, noting that their social circumstances would “drag them down” and they would fail out of college anyway. Now that the conditions of black and brown students are being felt by the rest of the student body (namely white students), colleges and universities can no longer ignore the plight of these students. They cannot say that all these students are not “cut out for college” because that would impact their enrollments. Blaming their parents is a low blow and ignores the economic forces that many families are still trying to recover from.
The connections to the role of education within these social forces are clear. Mr. Haque notes that “democracy isn’t just about voting, but about a kind of vibrant, healthy civic life.” Civics instruction has declined in recent decades in response to standardized tests that measure nothing of value and rob teachers of the ability to engage students with the world around them. Children must be taught how to make clear and unique connections between their learning and the broader world. Schools can support families by providing expanded free and reduced lunch programs, after-school tutoring programs, and free or nearly-free extracurricular programs. All of this will help families provide the stability our children need to grow up strong and ready for the world.
Doing these things will also give parents the peace of mind they need to focus on solving their family’s problems. It will reduce stress at home and show families that they matter. This will in turn provide some breathing room for parents and children to lift their heads up and look to the great society to see how they can make it better for everyone. It will provide some downtime for reflection and planning for action. Education is a social good, and as such a cornerstone of a thriving democracy. By addressing the economic situation of our families, and bolstering the role of education in that endeavor, we will recommit ourselves as a nation to creating a more perfect union.
This blog post is part of a newsletter I publish weekly called The Gigster 'Zine. It is a production of the Colégas Group, an organization that seeks to offer new opportunities for anyone with a college degree. To learn more about us, to receive valuable strategies for improvement, and to find innovative employment opportunities, sign up for the complete newsletter at colegasgroup.com.