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2018.12.09 – Dopamine Puppets

Some years ago, in another life, I taught college students.

I was teaching at one of the top 25 universities in the US, where many freshmen have been homeschooled or gone to expensive private institutions.

I certainly didn’t expect them all to be geniuses or the grittiest lot in the world. But the magnitude of the conformity and lack of initiative that most demonstrated was truly shocking. And they lacked basic technical skills.

Among other things, they had all been meticulously programmed, even the brightest ones, to be politically correct. They were afraid to say anything controversial – lest someone somehow be offended or made to think. Challenging me or asking provocative questions in class was out of the question.

The problem certainly isn’t from yesteryear, but it’s been getting worse, at least in my experience.

The inability to take risks that this political correctness, this perpetual comfort and coddling have inculcated is staggering.

And please don’t blame it all on the schoolteachers and university professors swimming with little pedagogical training against a powerful current of overprotective parents, erratic school boards, log-headed state and federal standards and hyperactive “community” organizations waiting for the slightest blunder to strip them of their tenure and whatever dignity they may have left.

FACT: many colleges have “speech codes” for institutionalized censorship.

FACT: few professors have the practice of calling on the shier students to participate in the discussion so they can build confidence and social skills. That is, if there is any discussion going on at all.

FACT, BRUTAL FACT: in many classes students can get a passing grade basically for showing up.

That first year of teaching I gave failing mid-semester grades to half of my students – and a long lecture on how important it is to challenge authority (that is, me) and think critically and independently. Red ink spilt profusely over their papers, identifying technical and logical lapses.

By the end of that taxing semester, their writing had become unrecognizable – well-organized and almost without typos.

In discussions and papers, they would come up with ideas that had evaded me after an entire decade in the same discipline, often holding me up well after our class was supposed to have ended.

I will never forget what one of my best students that year said when she got her mid-semester F: “Well, maybe I should get out of my comfort zone and say more of what I think.”

Failure, and facing it on one’s own, is the only way to develop any sense of individual autonomy.

The very thought of failure is crippling to younglings these days.

And I cannot think of anything that has been a more powerful motivator to me as a young person. That sinking feeling, undetermined, overcasting my every instant with foreboding and ambiguity.

But there is a science and an art to unleashing the creative value of failure. It’s our responsibility to cultivate and elevate that creative value to the level not just of an educational, but a cultural norm. Can you point to anyone who created anything of value without failing miserably early on?

Instead of thinking individuals, we’re producing softie conformists, ready to believe or tolerate anything they are fed by politicians, media and tech gurus. I don’t even want to consider what the future of a society like that is going to be.

But what does all this mean for the individual, right now?

The coddling culture makes it thrice as hard for all of us to “make it” in life, and make it on our own terms. The critical input of our society (family, friends, coworkers, anyone) is dialed down to the level of white noise, which confounds more than it enlightens.

We are left with the dual task of being savage to ourselves about our shortcomings, all while working to overcome them.

Some of us will embrace that challenge.

Dopamine puppets will go buy the latest “smartphone”.

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