Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Standing Up

Most modern college students in North America have been sheltered from challenge and responsibility their entire lives. Compared to the upbringing of most children through history, modern college aged youth are pampered, and assured of their own specialness.
Today's college students are more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors, according to a comprehensive new study by five psychologists who worry that the trend could be harmful to personal relationships and American society.

"We need to stop endlessly repeating 'You're special' and having children repeat that back," said the study's lead author, Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. "Kids are self-centered enough already."

Twenge and her colleagues, in findings to be presented at a workshop Tuesday in San Diego on the generation gap, examined the responses of 16,475 college students nationwide who completed an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1982 and 2006.

The researchers describe their study as the largest ever of its type and say students' NPI scores have risen steadily since the current test was introduced in 1982. By 2006, they said, two-thirds of the students had above-average scores, 30 percent more than in 1982.

..."Unfortunately, narcissism can also have very negative consequences for society, including the breakdown of close relationships with others," he said.

The study asserts that narcissists "are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors."

Twenge, the author of "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable Than Ever Before," said narcissists tend to lack empathy, react aggressively to criticism and favor self-promotion over helping others.

Modern child-rearing in North America lacks meaningful challenges, and rites of passage--to provide a clear demarcation between self-centered childhood and a more competent and responsible adulthood.

In Science Fiction author Alexei Panshin's novel "Rite of Passage", 14 year olds underwent "The Challenge", a necessary rite of transition which some of them did not survive. Of course this idea was drawn from many earth examples of aboriginal and other cultures that require the child to undergo a rite of passage that sometimes results in the child's death.

For boys, the ritual often involved surviving in the wilderness--perhaps hunting a dangerous animal such as a lion. For girls, rites surrounding the onset of menses were common. Certainly giving birth for the first time was a sufficiently life threatening and altering experience to qualify as a rite of passage for girls.

Going to college for many years, and perhaps graduate school for many more, can often be a way to simply avoid one rite of passage--a full time job leading to economic self-sufficiency. If a youth considers himself too "special" to undertake most forms of work, the rite may be postponed indefinitely. For a young woman, school and long preparation for a career can postpone the childbirth rite so late in her life, that the biological clock eventually obviates the issue permanently.

Psychologically neotenous youth are typically narcissistic as well. If they also open themselves to indoctrination at a typical university or college, they have scored the magic hat trick--narcissism, psychological neoteny, and academic lobotomy. When that occurs, there is little reason to expect adult behaviour or responsible attitudes and participation in the society at large.

There are, however, some areas of North American society where the rite of passage occurs in all its historical potency. That would be in much of the military, fire departments, EMS, rescue units, and better trained and disciplined law enforcement personnel.

The idea of a rite of passage is a powerful one, as old as humanity. You can see how easily it is perverted in the muslim culture, where violent murder by martyrdom is too often celebrated as a rite of passage--although a rather grotesque and pointless one in my opinion.

But rites of passage need not be so perverse. An enlightened society has to understand that lifelong pampering and protection from challenge and responsibility is no way to raise productive adults who willingly contribute to their communities in all facets of living. Until North Americans understand the problem they have created for themselves, the ride will be bumpy and more than a little precarious.

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