by Daniel A. Kaufman
These last few days, I have been in NY – Long Island to be precise – staying with my mother, while my father is traveling. This has become something of a ritual. My parents are elderly – my father will be ninety in June and my mother just turned eighty-six, last August – and have reacted very differently to their respective diminishing conditions. My father, ever defiant, wants to do as much as he can, so long as he can, which means a seemingly never-ending series of tours around the country, promoting books he has written, on a wide variety of topics. (After half a century as a businessman and entrepreneur, he has reinvented himself as an author.) My mother, who has “had enough,” no longer wants anything to do with the responsibilities and chores associated with maintaining the house and household in which I grew up and she and my father still live and would like to move into a managed facility. She stopped driving several years ago and is loath to travel, which means that she is periodically left alone and effectively helpless. So, every time my father goes on one of his trips, I come to Long Island to take care of my mother and keep her company.
Just two days ago, we were grocery shopping, when I saw something that struck me. The grocery store is in a small shopping center that sits right behind my old junior high school (now a so-called “middle school,” in which sixth graders have been added to the mix of seventh and eighth graders that once comprised the entire student body). It was Friday, around noon, and as we were loading the car with the groceries we had just bought, I saw three boys, no older than eleven or twelve, push through a hole in the fence separating the shopping center from the school grounds, and make their way to the pizzeria that is right next to the grocery store.
Either that hole in the fence has been there since I was in junior high, thirty-seven years ago, or successive generations of eleven, twelve, and thirteen year olds have re-opened it. My friends and I also would leave school through that hole to go to lunch, but in 1980 the place wasn’t a pizzeria, but Andel’s Kosher Delicatessen, where we would shove our faces full of Hebrew National hot dogs, potato knishes, and half-sour pickles, washing it all down with Dr. Brown’s cherry, cream, or celery soda. God, do I miss that place … and that time.
It’s no secret that I’ve been rather down on the world lately and especially the world of young people, which is as shitty as its been, since the days when teachers and administrators were allowed to whack students with rulers and other assorted disciplinary implements. Seeing these boys and their brazen act of juvenile delinquency gave me a sudden, wild rush of hope, for it seemed to indicate several things, all of which strike me as good. For one thing, it meant either that school security was incompetent enough for kids to find a way around it or that administrators didn’t care enough about making pubescence even more miserable than it already is to enforce the rules too strictly. (Kids that young are not permitted to leave campus today, nor were they when I was in junior high.) For another, it indicated that at least some eleven, twelve, and thirteen year olds have enough guts to try and escape for lunch, not to mention the brains to figure out how to do it. And finally, it meant that there is a pizzeria owner cool enough to sell a few slices and drinks to three kids, in the middle of a school day, rather than be a fucking dick and report them to the Principal or worse, the police.
Of course, this is New York and particularly, the North Shore of Long Island; the “Gold Coast”; Gatsby country; land of the Vanderbilts, Fricks, and Roosevelts. Sagamore Hill is a fifteen minute drive from our family house. Our public library dates back to and is named after William Cullen Bryant, who is buried nearby. In short, not your typical place, though in a certain way, quintessentially American. My high school is just down the road from the junior high (I’m sorry, I just can’t say “middle school” again), and as my mother and I drove home, I watched teenagers streaming from the back steps to the various eateries within walking distance. Mine is one of a handful of high schools left in the country that still has an open campus, all of which seem to be clustered either on Long Island or in California
Regrettably, my wife, daughter and I don’t live in California or on Long Island, but in southern Missouri, and the public schools my daughter has attended have all been essentially variations on prison. The rules are many and ruthlessly enforced, with zero tolerance. Police have offices on campus – usually right next to the Principal’s office – and are employed in matters of ordinary discipline, in a way that would be unthinkable back in my day, something to which kids are acclimated at a very young age. Police stand outside the doors of the city’s elementary schools every morning, “greeting” the students, so they will come to accept being under constant warrantless surveillance, as a matter of course. Cameras are everywhere, and punishments are severe to the point of a wild lack of proportion: my daughter once received detention for failing to bring colored pencils for an in-class activity. No, that’s not a joke.
The result is that there are essentially two types of young people here: the meek, obedient, pathologically apologetic and those who are abject criminals. Add a ubiquitous, noxious form of evangelical Christianity to the mix, which inculcates in everyone the view that guilt and shame are endemic and inescapable, and you have a recipe for listlessness, low ambition, and resignation, on the one hand, and a shocking level of self-destructiveness on the other. Thank goodness we are part of a tiny Jewish sub-community and virtually everyone in our inner-circle originally hails from New York, Chicago, or LA, which means that none of my daughter’s closest friends have been raised in the local ethos. We also spend virtually every summer traveling, from New York to Miami to Rome to Tel Aviv, so our daughter has never developed the idea that local mores and practices are in any way normal or representative of anything beyond the American lower-Midwest and South.
Of course, one way in which these areas are normal and representative is in terms of the schools and how youth are treated more generally, and the majority of American young people attend schools like my daughter’s and not like those on the North Shore of Long Island, past or present. It is a catastrophic development, the effects of which are evident in the late teens and early twenty-somethings who populate my classes in the hundreds, semester after semester. Beyond their disturbing emotional fragility, which is well-documented and is the reason for all the “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and the like that we keep hearing about – indeed, there now is an entire industry, whose sole purpose is to consult with companies on how to manage Millennials in a work environment, given their brittleness – they exhibit an almost endemic discomfort with their own autonomy.
The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has suggested that this is due to significant changes in child-rearing practices (by which he means both parenting and schooling) that developed right around 1980, which is the cutoff point between the Millennials and Generation X. (1) For those raised prior to 1980 – I was born in 1968 – spending large amounts of time engaged in non-structured, un-supervised activity, often away from home, was the norm even for young children, and not only would the idea that police should be permanently encamped in ordinary suburban high schools never have occurred to anyone, the absence of advanced surveillance technology meant that it was possible to get away with petty rule-infractions like skipping class or smoking behind the building, without having a SWAT team descend upon you. Hence the 1980’s teen archetype of the clever, slick machinator, immortalized in John Hughes’ immensely popular movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Such kids barely exist today – our entire system of child development, including our philosophy of schooling, is designed to prevent it – and it’s no wonder that the John Hughes brand of teen film has almost entirely disappeared. What teenager today could possibly pull off the sort of suspension of disbelief necessary to go on the ride with Ferris Bueller, insofar as one cannot imagine any student being able even to get out of his or her high school, let alone spend a day all over town, without being snatched up by some adult authority? If made today, it would be Ferris Bueller’s Day in San Quentin, with a running time of about fifteen minutes.
What simultaneously mystifies and infuriates me is that this regime has been put in place by the two generations who enjoyed the most free, least supervised, most independent childhoods of anyone in the last century: the Baby Boomers and Generation X. Haidt explains this in terms of a national panic, in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, induced by a handful of child abduction cases and the magnifying effects of the 24/7 news cycle that came with the advent of cable television, but while this may provide an explanation of our current model of child rearing, it serves as no excuse for it. We should know better, if only from our own goddamned experience, and I sometimes wonder what sorts of adults we think we are going to produce this way and how we would expect them to run anything, let alone a country as large and complex and demanding as the United States. But then I stop myself, realizing that we are all so myopic and self-absorbed that it is quite unlikely that anyone is thinking that far ahead.