Rx for the iGen Generation: Intellectual Virtue, Not Safe Spaces


While many adults are perplexed by today’s young people, a number of important books offer insight and answers to why, according to the cover of one of them, “Today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy—and completely unprepared for adulthood.”

Members of today’s iGen generation were born from 1995 onward, and San Diego State psychology professor Jean Twenge writes in her book iGen, “they grew up with cell phones, had an Instagram page before they started high school, and do not remember a time before the Internet.”

Prof. Twenge says that because of the popularity of smartphones, the everyday life experiences of iGen young people are “radically different from those of their predecessors,” with average teens checking their phones 80 times a day.

Twenge quotes teens who say that social media is destroying their lives, but can’t get off it because, paradoxically, then they would have no lives.

Not coincidentally, since 2011, today’s iGen kids have skyrocketing rates of loneliness, depression, anxiety, self-injury, and suicide.

Especially concerning is Twenge’s finding that interest in school among iGen youngsters took a sudden plunge in 2012, “with fewer students saying they found school interesting, enjoyable, or meaningful.”

They tend to view what they read online as more authoritative than what they read in books, and “many iGen students seem to see their schools as behind the times, irrelevant in a fast-paced world of constantly changing technology.”

More worrisome is Twenge’s finding that iGen young people believe “different ideas are upsetting and unsafe” and that “there’s no point in studying them because getting a good job is much more important.”

So how to address the challenges of the iGen generation?

Changing America’s school model may not be as impossible as one would think.

In my books Moonshots in Education and Choosing Diversity: How Charter Schools Promote Diverse Learning Models and Meet the Diverse Needs of Parents and Children, I discuss the great potential of the blended learning model, which combines traditional and online-learning methods, and how charter schools are in the forefront of using technology-centered education programs that meet the desires of today’s young people.

With regard to the propensity of iGen kids to view ideas with which they disagree as unsafe and more worthy of canceling than debating, Greg Lukianoff, head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and New York University business school professor Jonathan Haidt write in their book The Coddling of the American Mind that “the new culture of safetyism and vindictive protectiveness is bad for students.”

Lukianoff and Haidt echo Twenge in encouraging parents to limit the time children spend on devices such as smartphones.

However, they go further and make various tough recommendations.

They understand that the scourge of identity politics is often embedded in the curriculum, so they urge parents to review the materials their children are given to determine if students are being encouraged “to see one another not as individuals but as exemplars of groups, some of which are bad, some of which are good.”

If schools are using curricula supplied by outside groups, parents need to research those groups to detect their bias.

They also recommend discouraging “the use of the word ‘safe’ or ‘safety’ for anything other than physical safety” because overusing those words will give rise to the expectation that authority figures need to be called in to stop anything claimed to be unsafe.

To combat the “safety” culture, Lukianoff and Haidt advocate the intellectual virtues, which “include curiosity, open-mindedness, and intellectual humility.”

They point to The Intellectual Virtues Academy, a California charter school that promotes “a strong sense of community marked by collaboration, empowerment, and intentional openness and respect for the thinking of others.”

The observations of Twenge, Lukianoff and Haidt are critical to understanding iGen young people.  However, if there is one overarching lesson to be gleaned from their books it is that addressing these challenges will not be possible by maintaining the near monopoly of the today’s one-size-fits-all enabling regular public school system.

The iGen generation is used to choices in their lives, and only by giving them and their parents choices in education will we give them the opportunity to answer the challenges facing them.

–Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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