I’ll admit I have a bias. I was raised to be independent; I didn’t have a choice about relying on myself. Our family had a lower-middle-class life: no frills, but a decent roof over our heads and food on the table that Mom invariably made from scratch. It was never kept a secret from my brother and me that Dad’s wages were barely enough to cover the bills, and sometimes, they came up short. There were some scary years after Dad got hurt at his job and we didn’t know if we’d lose the house. Yes, we were often afraid of the future, but we learned to face reality and deal with problems. I put myself through college, and my brother went right to work after high school.
By the time I was 30, I’d experienced more deaths among my family and friends and more physical and mental crises than the average person. Through most of those times, I had no one to depend on but myself. I had the moral support of a handful of loyal, caring friends, and I knew how valuable they were, but I never actually leaned on them much. I appreciated their being there for me, but I always held myself up. According to my parents’ code, you loved your friends, but you didn’t take advantage, you didn’t ask for help. That kind of mindset makes for a hard life, but it engenders tremendous strength, for which I’m grateful.
As part of the excellent education I got at public schools in our township, I was made not only to learn, but also to think. I remember an English class in which we were assigned sides in a succession of debates, and had to reason out, then compose, our own arguments. In an American government class, we had to choose news articles each week and then analyze them. In French, we read existentialist works from the 1950s and discussed the concepts presented therein. Certainly, we were taught the material we needed to know to pass standard tests, but that was only one facet of the curricula, if we chose to avail ourselves of all that the schools offered. Later, in college, I had a history prof who was fond of posing questions such as, “How would events in France have been different if Marie Antoinette had been ugly?” In philosophy, we had to provide our own interpretations of the ideas we studied. In general, we were encouraged to question everything and think for ourselves, rather than merely accepting as gospel whatever we read or were told. I have no proof that my education was typical of my generation, but judging by conversations with contemporaries from other places, I believe it was, at least in terms of the learning opportunities offered.
All of these personal recollections to say that I, along with people with whom I grew up, and generational friends I’ve made as an adult, had in common the chance to develop critical thinking skills. Schools were set up that way. And while my life has had its share of rough spots, neither did my friends have lives of privilege. No one grew up believing that his or her parents owed him or her a college education. No one was cocooned and sheltered until adulthood. My growing-up years happened long before the time when children got gold stars just for showing up; there were winners and losers when I was a kid. Sure, it was a harsher world for a child, but the preparation for life was infinitely better. My parents and their parents had it even tougher.
Contrast the above experiences with those of younger people today. When her boys were born, my sister-in-law flatly stated that they’d never have the childhood she did, which involved a strict upbringing. Instead, her children were allowed to do pretty much as they pleased and were given everything they could possibly want. The result is two young men who think only of themselves. In another situation, a good friend was on sick leave for six months and, toward the end, didn’t know how she’d pay the mortgage, but instead of being honest with her 15-year-old about their finances, she used her yearly bonus to buy the girl the expensive gift she wanted for Christmas. My friend just prayed she’d be able to catch up on the house payments. It took a stint in the Army for the daughter to get a grip on reality. A third example involves a younger relative who was propped up by his mother and grandmother. They paid off the balances when he defaulted on loans and ran up hefty credit card debts. This man never had to get himself through a difficult situation or deal with any consequences. When faced with a genuine crisis, he was paralyzed, with no will to move forward, no clue what to do, and no faith that he could overcome the challenges.
I believe that the overall lack of coping and critical thinking skills among Generations Y and Z, especially, have added to the miasma and chaos in the U.S. in these last months. There are carping posts everywhere about being cooped up, complaints about having to sacrifice, protests about government restrictions. This when almost anything in the world can be delivered to the front door with a few mouse clicks, food can be brought from most restaurants, and worldwide communication is available 24/7. In the states that have re-opened but still maintain social restrictions, younger people have jammed into bars and eateries, totally ignoring the rules. They defiantly tout the virus as “no worse than the flu,” despite the horrifying statistics. They believe, against all logic, the propaganda trotted out by those in charge of the government. Of course, not all the re-opening protesters are under 40, nor are those packing the pubs all college kids, but from the photo evidence I’ve seen, it appears that older generations are both taking the pandemic seriously, adopting appropriate precautions; and having an easier time of the quarantine. I’m making generalizations, surely, but I’m convinced that the nation as a whole would be better off if modern child-rearing approaches included introducing kids to the realities of life before they leave for college or start jobs. Instilling the habit of questioning and independent thought, too, would go a long way toward producing more aware adults, people who don’t buy into everything they see on any given news channel. Perhaps the dumbing-down of America could be reversed.