I was sitting on couch trying to decide what to write about this week. I must have had a puzzled or concerned look on my face because my son asked me what I was doing. I told him I was trying to figure out what my podcast for this week was going to be about. I was lacking in inspiration this time around. As is his wont, my ten-year-old immediately tried to help.
“You could write about Trump,” he offered. “Yes, but what specifically?” I asked him.
“Or write about Biden – have you written about Biden?” he asked. Because he knows that Biden is the other person we are chiefly concerned about right now. “No, I haven’t really,” I conceded.
“Or write about a past president. Maybe compare him to a current candidate.” Silently I thought to myself that’s a pretty good idea for a ten-year-old. And I thought about the episode about the Great Silent Majority where I did just that. “These are really good ideas,” I told him. “I just need specifics.”
“Compare Trump and Biden’s speeches on why they want to be President,” he finally offered.” Holy crap, I thought. Has he been looking at old political rhetoric syllabi? Because that could literally be an assignment from one of my classes. He basically just proposed a genre criticism. Rhetoric is in his blood! “Maybe,” I told him. “That’s a pretty good idea.” “Cool,” he smiled. “if you write on that you have to credit me.”
My son is not shy about talking about politics. His opinions aren’t as well-thought out as mine, perhaps– but he’s also 10. But he has opinions. And they are informed by his sense of equality, justice, and fairness. He has a sense of what is right and wrong, and he applies that to what he hears on the news or what he hears us talking about. He has been to protests and recognizes the importance of making yourself heard. My son’s opinions are grounded in his morals. He will absolutely tell you what he thinks about Trump. I wouldn’t say he’s interested in politics the way his mom and dad are. But he knows politics are important and something to be taken seriously. In that way, he’s a tad different than many of his generation.
My son is either on the tail end of the Gen Z generation or the beginning of what comes next. Sort of like me – just barely Gen X, but so close to Millennial. I’ve been in the college classroom since 2003 so I have seen the last of the Millennials go through and am now witnessing the first Zoomers come in. And my experience is that there are more similarities than differences.
There is a dependence on technology that is different than generations before. But that is not a weakness or something to be mocked. It is simply a defining marker that comes from growing up in an age defined by a digital revolution.
I had my first email address when I was in college. That was my first real access to the internet. These are kids for whom the digital world is the water in which they swim.
Sometimes older people make fun of younger generations for being attached to technology. But that’s like making fun of older people for listening to the radio or having the television on during the day. They are just using the technologies of their time.
Time and education are distinctly commodified for these generations. Everything comes down to what can be profitable. These generations don’t have hobbies, they have side-hustles. The gig-economy is real and prevalent to them. Their major isn’t what they are interested in but what they think will lead to a job – any job. This is a direct result of living in a precarious economy that, quite frankly, has been ruined by previous generations. Millennials and Gen Z lack the stability and ability to build wealth that previous generations had. Their hard work leads to instability and more debt, and previous generations are not being very understanding of that. So there is a tendency to see a lot of life in terms of transaction. They are willing to spend more on those things that are pleasurable in the short term because the long term is so precarious, and things like education and time are worth more money.
There is a lot of angst about job market and future (esp. since 2008). And this is totally deserved, especially for Millennials (and to be honest, late Gen X-ers). Young to mid-life adults have lived through what are now two of the three greatest economic crises in American history and they have hit and significant points in their financial lives. For mid-life adults the 2008 crisis hit when they were looking for jobs and now the COVID crisis hit when they should have been acquiring wealth, and for young adults the COVID crisis hit when they were hitting the market looking for their first jobs. There is a whole generation of people who, regardless of how careful they are with money, will never accumulate wealth. How will we retire? How will we pass things on to our children the way past generations have? This is going to have rippling effects for generations.
Finally, my experience with Millennials and Gen Z is that there is a general disillusionment with politics. They are generally apathetic or turned off. I can’t make a large generalization here, but it has been my PERSONAL experience that my conservative students are much more engaged with politics than others. I have the occasional progressive student who is really engaged, but my conservative students seem much more willing to go to the mat for their causes.
I have, and this is once again a personal observation, seen bigger differences in region and SES then there are in the generational gap. I say that having taught at elite R1 school in TX and a regional state school in NY. The difference has not been between my Millennial students and my Gen Z students, but between my Texas students and my NY students. That is not to say that there are not differences between the generations. The biggest seems to me that Millennials seem to want to work within the system and Zoomers seem to want to tear it all down. But at the same time, neither wants to embrace partisanship. And both are frustrated that institutions aren’t speaking to THEM. The issues that they are concerned with – climate change, education (and education debt), gun control, systemic racism – these don’t seem to be on the political elite’s radar. So is it any wonder they are apathetic?
The thing I want to make most clear is that I have never bought into the stereotyping about young people being unbearably lazy, unmotivated, or entitled. My experience with young people, starting in 2003 until 2020, is that some of them are lazy and entitled, just like some people my age are, and many people older than me are. But many of them are hardworking, diligent, and disciplined. I don’t know how many students I have that are working their way through college in an environment that is wildly hostile to that. My students are willing to put in the work if you make the work worth it, and that’s fair. I have found, over a career that has spanned almost two decades now, that setting a high bar generally means they will meet it. My experience, limited as it is, is that those who complain about young people being lazy and entitled, are generally being pretty lazy about motivating young people, challenging them, or trying to meet their needs. As for me, I’m Team Millennial and Team Zoomer all the way.
As for Millennial interest in politics there are a few generalizations that people have made based on wide-spread surveys. Millennials are more interested in volunteering than voting. They are not as concerned about big government vs. small government as they are accountable government. And transparency is of the utmost importance.
According to the Pew Research Center, Millennials lag behind older generations in their interest in government and politics. When asked to choose among a list of nine topics, only about a quarter of Millennials name government and politics as one of the three topics they are most interested in. By comparison, politics ranks among the top three interests for roughly a third of Gen Xers and 45% of Baby Boomers. Millennials also talk about politics less frequently than Baby Boomers; while about half of Baby Boomers say they talk about politics at least a few times a week, just 35% of Millennials say this.
In terms of political leanings among Millennials it is tempting to say they are more progressive than past generations, but the truth is more nuanced than that. According to CNN “They are the most racially diverse generation and the most likely to live in metro areas. They’re more likely to be unmoored from social institutions — the most likely to be religiously unaffiliated and the least likely to be married. They’re the least trusting of others. They’re the most likely to live with their parents and not be in the workforce. They’ve been mocked in the culture for being given participation trophies they never asked for, and many feel as if they’re inheriting a mess they didn’t make.”
“Politically, millennials are the most independent generation. They’re the least likely to see big differences between the Democratic and Republican parties, and a March Pew poll found 44% of millennials identify as independent, while 35% identify as Democrats and 17% as Republican.”
In short, they reject the political binaries of past political generations.
Gen Z interest in politics seems to be following suit. According to Teen Vogue, prior to the 2016 election, 50% of young adults self-identified as political independents, although they were much more likely than older generations to hold liberal views on a variety of social and political issues. A poll conducted among voters ages 18–24 found that 56% of young people “chose to affiliate with” either the Democratic or Republican political parties and one-third identified as Independents. “[Gen Z] is particularly prone to reject labels, even beyond politics. They are re-imagining the world they live in from the bottom up.
Even if they aren’t dismissing political parties outright, the country’s youngest voters are approaching the parties with considerable skepticism. About 34% of young white people age 18–24 believed membership in a political party made their voice more powerful. Black and Latinx were slightly more positive about party membership with about 41% of Black youth and about 41% of Latinx youth believing it made their voice more powerful.
According to Teen Vogue, a poll conducted after the 2018 midterm elections revealed that 57% of voters age 18–24 polled were losing faith in democracy, while 83% were “concerned about the values of the American people.” Social movements, like Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, and March for our Lives, have become the places where young people do the work of investing their energies and discovering their civic values as opposed to involvement in traditional political parties.
Trump recently made some statements about education – the President said that the nation must restore “patriotic education” in schools as a way to calm unrest in cities and counter “lies” about racism in the United States. “Many young Americans have been fed lies about America being a wicked nation plagued by racism,” Trump said during a news conference. “Indeed, Joe Biden and his party spent their entire convention spreading this hateful and destructive message while refusing to say one word about the violence.”
It would seem Trump’s solution to the issues of younger generation’s disillusionment with politics would be to teach American greatness in schools. So let’s look at the way patriotism is handled in a couple of places in America.
According to the state of New York: Courses of instruction in patriotism and citizenship and in certain historic documents. 1. In order to promote a spirit of patriotic and civic service and obligation and to foster in the children of the state moral and intellectual qualities which are essential in preparing to meet the obligations of citizenship in peace or in war, the regents of The University of the State of New York shall prescribe courses of instruction in patriotism, citizenship, civic education and values, our shared history of diversity, the role of religious tolerance in this country, and human rights issues, with particular attention to the study of the inhumanity of genocide, slavery (including the freedom trail and underground railroad), the Holocaust, and the mass starvation in Ireland from 1845 to 1850, to be maintained and followed in all the schools of the state.
That’s liberal NY!
According to Georgia, grade one, standards: In this unit, students will begin to explore the United States national heritage using the theme of culture to learn about patriotic songs. Students will also use the theme of location to explore basic physical and political geography, and to relate their physical location to the various ways it can be described.’ Note: Be sensitive to the fact that some students may not be able to observe certain ways of expressing patriotism such as by singing patriotic songs, however, they can still learn about the lyrics and what they mean as the standards and these lesson ideas suggest.
We seem to be doing a fine job requiring patriotism in schools.
So if we’re teaching patriotism what is the disconnect?
We do a bad job teaching history and civics, maybe?
Back to my son – I asked him whether he liked history. He told me it was not his favorite. You can imagine this breaks my rhetorical historicist heart, but I try not to force my interests on him. But come on! History is so important! Which I told him! And he seemed completely unswayed.
“Maybe,” I hesitantly suggested, “that’s due to how history is taught as opposed to the nature of the subject? Afterall, you like historical podcasts. You love Hamilton.”(we know that’s not history per se, but he loves the story)
And he said, “Yeah, maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s just the way it’s taught. I like all those other things. Maybe it’s just the way it is in school.”
So why does he not like history?
Then what is history in school?
A bunch of dates?
A bunch of men we can’t relate to?
One-note stories or morality plays with no depth?
At best a bunch of unrelated stories?
What is history in reality?
It’s the context for understanding the world in which we live.
It’ a nuanced and complex story with unfathomable depth and intricacy.
It’s complicated characters, both flawed and heroic, that speak to both the best and the worst of us.
It’s a complicated chain of events, of causes and effects, that lead to where we are today.
History isn’t about memorizing important dates or rattling off the accomplishments of famous men – it’s about understanding a narrative, and how that narrative shapes reality. And who gets to tell that narrative. Who is part of the narrative and who is left out of it? What is the chain of events in that narrative and how does it affect you? Who are the people in that narrative and how do they speak to you? Or, perhaps more importantly? Who do they not speak to, and why? All too often history is taught is just when something happened. But the how and the why are the interesting questions? And with and without whom are often part of the answer.
As for civics it depends on where you are as to whether this subject is touched on, and if it is you get wildly varying versions of it. And when it is taught it seems to be in the most boring way possible.
We teach patriotism – we say the Pledge of Allegiance and we teach a certain brand of nationalism, but other than a possible semester of government in high school, the vast majority of k-12 students have no idea how their government works.
But here again, there is a problem with focus. If you are forced to sit in a class and just memorize the branches of the government and how many Representatives there are and how a bill becomes a law OF COURSE you are going to be bored out of your mind and forget it all once you are done with that class because that stuff is DULL.
Here again we need to move the focus from the mechanics to the WHY? Do our high schoolers know that America is a specifically Enlightenment experiment? Do they know what that means and why that is important?
It’s one thing to know what’s in the Bill of Rights, but it’s another to understand that the first ten amendments were specifically a response to their context. Those things were what was important to those people THEN. So if the Constitution was specifically responding to its historical moment what does that mean about the way we interpret it now?
Does your average high school junior understand the electoral college? I’m guessing not because the vast majority of American adults do not. Every four years we depend on this system to elect a president. Why? Where does it come from? Who does it benefit? For what reason?
Don’t even get me started on economics. Most kids graduate from high school not knowing what opportunity cost is, let alone the different between Keynesian economics and the Chicago school. So how are we supposed to make an education decision on things like what a smart tax code is?
I honestly don’t care if by the time a kid graduates if they can tell me when Bacon’s Rebellion was or who becomes President if Vice President AND the Speaker of the House are incapacitated. These are meaningless bits of trivia that the average person does not need to know in order to make good decisions. But a person does need to understand the history of the issues. The nature of our government. And the fundamentals of an economy (not just a neo-liberal version of it) in order to make good decisions. And we’re not giving our students the tools to do that. It’s no wonder young people aren’t interested in politics and current events. We’ve not given them the ability to take them seriously, and we don’t address those things that are most important to them.
The point is all too often the oh-so-important subjects focus on nitty-gritty details that have NO context and NO meaning and we completely ignore the important, big ideas. And it’s those important, big ideas that anchor them to the real world. That provide context. That help people make decisions. Our kids can HANDLE these ideas. They are LOOKING for ways to make sense of the world.
But I don’t know, I guess it might be hard to standardize test this stuff.
And there are efforts to sanitize education even further. Sunday morning Trump said he would be investigating schools that use the 1619 Project in their curriculums. He claimed schools that use the project would not be funded. This should bring to mind a previous episode of this very podcast about propaganda, nationalism, education, and critical thinking. What is being taught is not anti-Americanism, but a white, Ameri-centered, almost nationalist curriculum, and those in power need it to stay that way because it bolsters THEIR power.
This makes public discourse superficial, one-dimensional, completely un-nuanced – so why would young people be interested in it? This is like political and educational fundamentalism – it reduces everything to the simplest, black/white binary. So it’s no surprise young people aren’t interested in that – they see the complexity of the world and when people of any political stripe try to reduce it to a categorical, they reject that. This is why many won’t categorize themselves politically – they are more complicated than the labels would suggest.
If we want them to be politically active, we have to give them the tools to work through these political and discursive problems. We have to think not just about mechanics, but nuance, narrative, and the complexities of the world in which we live, because they reject the simple answers. They live in a world that is networked and multi-layered and constantly changing – they can handle the complicated stories that inform the world we live in.
We just have to tell them.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.
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