Each new school year Jeremy Adams, a teacher in Bakersfield, Calif., gives the same lesson. When he shows pictures of celebrities like Kendall Jenner or Miley Cyrus to his students on a screen, they immediately recognize them. But faced with photos of policymakers like Mike Pence or Nancy Pelosi, the children stare blankly.
“We need to brace ourselves for what lies ahead. I write this book as an alarm bell . . . a project born out of worry, concern and frustration.”
A National Teacher of the Year nominee, Adams frets that today’s youngsters are “barren of the behavior, values and hopes from which human beings have traditionally found higher meaning . . . or even simple contentment.” Adams calls them “hollowed out,” a generation living solitary lives, hyperconnected to technology but unattached from their families, churches or communities. He cites statistics showing teen depression rose 63 percent from 2007 to 2017 while teen suicide grew 56 percent. Tragically, he writes, suicide has become the second-leading cause of death for the young.
While teachers once helped students become their “best selves” by putting the focus on curriculums, lesson plans and test scores, he writes, that’s given way to trying to “understand” young people through programs emphasizing suicide and depression awareness, human trafficking concerns, or bullying, gangs, and shootings.
Adams blames the dissolution of the American family for this shift, with marriage rates down and the number of traditional two-parent homes plummeting. Although studies have shown that regular family dinners leads to less youth “smoking, binge drinking, marijuana use, violence, school problems, eating disorders and sexual activity,” most of Adams’ students say they eat dinner alone each night, focused not on family but the device in their hand.
“The neglect of family life is one of the greatest causes of the hollowing out not only of students, but of American life,” Adams writes.
He also bemoans the evaporation of religious life. While only 2 percent of Americans identified themselves as “atheists” in 1984, that number was 22 percent by 2020. A college religion professor notes that when he discusses Matthew from the Bible, many students think he’s talking about Matthew Perry of “Friends.” And Luke? His students assume it’s the guy from “Beverly Hills 90210.”
Religion has been replaced by “a mass culture of ‘banality, conformity, and self-indulgence,’ ” Adams writes, not to mention an obsession with technology. He notes that in the 1970s, more than 50 percent of high schoolers hung out with friends “every day,” but by 2020 that number had dropped below 33 percent. Modern high-schoolers regularly forego traditional activities like Friday night football games to hunker down alone, “watching Netflix, Hulu, or Disney+.” That helps explain why in 2012 49 percent of teens ranked “in person” as their favorite way to talk but in 2018 only 32 percent did.
Modern students constantly text during classes, Adams says, or watch streaming services during Zoom meetings, living in a state psychiatrists call “continuous partial attention.” Studies show the average Gen Z student uses five electronic devices and has an 8-second attention span, which results in “lower grades, diminished ability to concentrate, and stunted academic achievement.”
Adams predicts that today’s young people will be unprepared for the future. In 2014, a US general was quoted saying “the quality of people willing to serve has been declining rapidly,” with 71 percent of current 17-24-year-olds ineligible due to obesity, criminal records, mental health or drug issues. Meanwhile, a recent survey highlighted that while 70 percent of senior citizens could pass a US citizenship test, less than 20 percent of those under 45 could, Adams writes.
Not that today’s youngsters seem to care.
“I never hear young people professing love for their country,” Adams writes. “I used to. But not lately. That is when I really think teachers have a front row seat for America’s decline.”