Friday, December 30, 2011

Entitlement Generation Killing America?

I vividly remember the first time I heard a college professor explain the facts of life to me. No, I'm not talking about the bird and the bees; rather the facts of life for a college student. Gone were the days of high school, where teachers could be talked into accepting late papers and the expected grade was an "A." Welcome to the playoffs of academia, where a "C" is the standard.

That was great for me, as I'm the kind of person who won't accept the standard. I earned an A in that class, and continued to pile up the A's as I made my way through college. But it was great for me to get that initial reality check and personal challenge. It made me push myself to work harder than I had in high school, where I could sleep myself to an A in any subject outside of math.

Thinking back, however, I can honestly say that I never felt entitled to an A. I earned A's because my parents closely monitored my grades and set A's as the only acceptable outcome, except in math, where I was never interested enough to be great. I knew that I had to work for me grades, and I did so.

Fast-forward some twenty years and the landscape has changed significantly. No Child Left Behind has created a Christmas-like atmosphere in the grade school ranks. Far too often grades have become gifts given at the end of each grading period, rather than a true indication of how much a student has learned and how hard they worked to learn it.

What has changed since I was in grade school to create this atmosphere of gifting, rather than grading? Let's look at a few indicators:

1) A group that has surveyed high school seniors for the past 50 years or so reported that in response to the question (paraphrasing)..."Do you see yourself as unique, special and important?"....only 12% of graduating respondents in the
1950's said YES. In 2005-06,  80% of the respondents answered in the affirmative.

2)  The NY Times recently had an article that pointed out that the public's belief in "personal willpower" has declined markedly over the last several decades. Americans, apparently, are more inclined to conclude (for instance)..."No sense studying harder...I'm just not a good student" rather than spend the necessary time and effort to improve.

3) Americans some 40 or 50 years ago tended to save 10-15% of their income. Currently, Americans spend about 115% of their income and put the overage on their credit card, gladly paying absurd interest rates to avoid having practice discipline or patience.

On the surface these factors may seem unrelated, but I believe there is actually a strong correlation.

As parents we absolutely want our kids to feel unique, special and important. No question about that. My daughter is just six months old, yet I tell her dozens of times a day how special I think she is. When it comes to academics, however, the specialness has to be based upon achievement, not existence. Just showing up for class isn't the basis for a grade. Showing up is a basic requirement, not something to be rewarded.

Combine the No Child Left Behind approach to education, where failure really isn't an option because grades are gift-wrapped, and combine that with a generation that feels they are special just because they exist. It's easy to see how students might start to feel like they can walk on water before they get to college. After all, they've been labeled special or unique without having to work for the label and then handed a grade report that backs up the belief.

Now we can move into our second point of interest. These "special" kids with the "amazing" grades have had no reason to develop a strong work ethic, or fight to overcome weaknesses in pursuit of a grade or significant personal goal. Success is almost a given, often with little or no work.

It's easy to see, then, why these specially-conditioned students would walk out of the hallowed halls of education and expect everything to come easily. There are certainly enough unscrupulous credit card companies who are happy to keep the illusion alive. Just keep on swiping that card and don't worry about the limit . . .they'll increase it for just a few more points of interest.

Not only is it not a surprise that we've created an entire culture of self-important credit junkies, it's actually difficult to see how that wouldn't be the inevitable outcome.

This is not to say, of course, that ALL students are simply looking for a handout, just as we can't say that ALL Americans are in debt up to their ears. There are always the exceptions, those who get the most out of their education experiences and then parlay that into successful careers and lives. It's just that the entitlement group is growing at a much faster rate, and they eventually begin to drag down society as a whole.

The Entitlement set is far more likely to collect unemployment, for example, or to default on a loan that then drives up rates for everyone. They declare bankduptcy, driving up the overall cost of living for everyone. They drive without insurance, they qualify for government programs that provide them with food, healthy care and other basic necessities that end up coming out of the pockets of the successful and the self-determined.

In other words, they sabotage the American economy, and have everything to do with why said economy is on life support.

The solution is incredibly simply, but also highly unlikely to be implemented. The answer is to return to an educational system that rewards true effort, that sets high expectations and only recognizes excellence. Self-worth must again be derived from actual accomplishments, not gift-wrapped gimmes. But in order for these standards to be reset, the very people the low standards benefit must admit there is a problem and insist on solutions.

If they could do that, we wouldn't have the problem in the first place.


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