The moment my oldest daughter was born the word “love” suddenly seemed wholly insufficient. It didn’t describe, or even come close to capturing, the enormity of what I felt for her.
And now, in just a few weeks, I will do the very thing I have been dreading since she entered the world eighteen years ago: I will help her leave home by dropping her off to begin her freshman year of college.
But the cause of my current anxiety is about much more than predictable paternal sadness. Much of my concern stems from the fact that I am deeply worried about all of the young people starting their adult journeys this fall. You see, I am not just the father of a young adult. I have been teaching high school and college students for over two decades, and the sudden changes I have noticed in the past half-decade or so are more than a little bit worrying.
Many of our young people today are anxious, depressed and friendless. Their entire existence is funneled through a screen where they spend hour upon hour scrolling, gazing at mindless algorithmically-produced minutiae in utter isolation. Many don’t find sustenance through traditional religion nor do they take particular pride in being American. A traditional dinner table is fleeting for many. They aren’t sure marriage and family are laudable goals for adult life.
These problems, sadly, are just the tip of a tragic spear. There is a hollowness in their being that is propagated by a lack of soulful resources available to them. Too often today our homes, our schools, our political life, and even our broader culture itself, are of little assistance. They offer little in the way of a guided path.
Parents and teachers know something is not right in our culture and in our country. They know it because the proof is embodied in the most tragic of places: the intellectual, emotional and moral impoverishment of our children.
To begin the weighty but essential project of changing this trajectory I offer the following advice:
#1: The adults need to start adulting themselves: Start modeling adulthood, insert ourselves into the physical and emotional spaces of young Americans, force them to live more of their lives in the real world where they would absorb adult values, adult behaviors and adult expectations.
#2: The license is more important than the car keys: Teach young Americans that the form of freedom that leads to happiness is not the freedom to endless indulge oneself — it is the freedom to commit to people, places and principles one passionately believes in. Freedom without purpose is like giving car keys without a license.
#3: Patriotism is not a declaration of perfection: Young Americans are deeply skeptical that America is exceptional and it is incumbent that teachers and parents present our national history not as a sordid tale of oppression, but as a gallant and heroic attempt to slowly inch towards our national ideals. Explain that a nation doesn’t have to be perfect — and there is nothing wrong with teaching about our misdeeds — to be loved.
#4: Defend traditional aspirations: Human beings are not all that different than they were a hundred or even a thousand years ago. The relationships, values and behaviors that nourish the human soul and lead to human flourishing do not particularly change over time. Thus, it is important to defend the values of faith and family, learning and patriotism, friendship and the bonds of community, all of the things that get displaced when young people embrace an ethos of radicalized individualism.
#5: Make education less therapeutic and more academic: It is important that students feel valued, safe and supported. But there is nothing wrong with high expectations, standards and a little bit of tough love. The pendulum has swung too far in one direction. It is time to bring it back.
I know the moment I am dreading is close at hand. Soon, my daughter and her classmates will be away at college or in the workforce.
I’m worried and for good reason.
But I am also hopeful. There is a way out. We just have to take it.
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the forthcoming book, “Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation.” He has taught high school and college civics for over two decades in Bakersfield, California.