David Brooks makes some excellent points in this NYT op-ed piece called The Modesty Manifesto. Brooks outlines how just about everyone today believes they’re above average, whether or not we’re particularly good at anything. For example, American students have tremendous confidence in their math skills, but overwhelmingly lag many other industrialized nations (e.g., South Korea). Writes Brooks:
In a variety of books and articles, Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University and W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia have collected data suggesting that American self-confidence has risen of late. College students today are much more likely to agree with statements such as “I am easy to like” than college students 30 years ago. In the 1950s, 12 percent of high school seniors said they were a “very important person.” By the ’90s, 80 percent said they believed that they were.
In short, there’s abundant evidence to suggest that we have shifted a bit from a culture that emphasized self-effacement — I’m no better than anybody else, but nobody is better than me — to a culture that emphasizes self-expansion.
Writers like Twenge point out that young people are bathed in messages telling them how special they are. Often these messages are untethered to evidence of actual merit. Over the past few decades, for example, the number of hours college students spend studying has steadily declined. Meanwhile, the average G.P.A. has steadily risen.
He’s referring to books like this one, which I’ve mentioned before (it’s helpful – I referred to it several times while writing Thriving at College). Later Brooks argues that the rise in consumption and debt — in short, our unwillingness to live within our actual means — is symptomatic of an overall lack of modesty in today’s culture. And this makes it harder to be a good citizen, because “citizenship, after all, is built on an awareness that we are not all that special but are, instead, enmeshed in a common enterprise.”
I think Brooks is dead right, and we haven’t seen the half of it. If and when Congress gets serious about reigning in our massive deficit spending, they’ll have to cut entitlements. And when they do, they may pay a steep political price….which is why they’re so reluctant to do so in the first place. But I digress.
Brooks closes the piece this way:
Perhaps the enlargement of the self has also attenuated the links between the generations. Every generation has an incentive to push costs of current spending onto future generations. But no generation has done it as freely as this one. Maybe people in the past had a visceral sense of themselves as a small piece of a larger chain across the centuries. As a result, it felt viscerally wrong to privilege the current generation over the future ones, in a way it no longer does.
It’s possible, in other words, that some of the current political problems are influenced by fundamental shifts in culture, involving things as fundamental as how we appraise ourselves. Addressing them would require a more comprehensive shift in values.
Read the whole thing. [BTW, Brooks wrote a similar piece a few years ago called High-Five Nation, which I discussed here.]
HT: Karen Swallow Prior