The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development runs a "Program for International Student Assessment." Among the 34 participating countries, in 2009 American 15-year-olds' math scores ranked 25th.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan commented, when the scores were released, "The brutal fact here is there are many countries that are far ahead of us and improving more rapidly than we are. This should be a massive wake-up call to the entire country."
Not long ago, I bought a cup of coffee at a Java City stand. The price with tax was $2.20. I gave the college-age clerk a five-dollar bill and two dimes. He couldn't make change. He was stumped but not embarrassed. No wake-up call there.
In June of last year the New York Times reported that, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (a.k.a. "The Nation's Report Card"), "most fourth graders (were) unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure and few high school seniors (were) able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought American troops during the Korean War." Only two percent of the 12th graders tested could correctly answer a basic question about Brown v. Board of Education, even though many historians and legal scholars consider the 1954 school-desegregation case the most important Supreme Court decision of the past half-century.
In what do America's younger generation score highest in the world? The answer is "self-esteem." According to ABC, which relied on an article in the journal Psychological Science, "Today's American high school students are far likelier than those in the 1970s to believe they'll make outstanding spouses, parents and workers, new research shows. They're also much more likely to claim they are 'A' students with high IQs even though other research shows that today's students do less homework than their counterparts did in the 1970s."
The ABC story quotes Psychology Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University speculating, "What this shows is that confidence has crossed over into overconfidence."
Here's where the finger swings around and points at us older generations. Dr. Twenge adds that "decades of relentless, uncritical boosterism by parents and school systems may be producing a generation of kids with expectations that are out of sync with the challenges of the real world."
Have we the Dr. Frankensteins created a generation of egotistical young monsters, who will when, like Dr. F's monster, they peer into the well and see what they really are turn on their creators?
To hear older folks tell it, I'm one of those very "over-coddled, overconfident" twenty-somethings, no doubt set free to destroy American life as we know it with my psychotic, delusional hubris. And yet… shockingly enough, I doubt you could find anyone who knows me to describe me as such. No, far more likely you'll find people who describe me as soft-spoken, self-effacing, and shy. I don't think I have an overblown sense of self-worth; if anything, I probably have too little confidence in abilities. Similarly, I'm hard-pressed to think of a single friend of mine who possesses this legendary pomposity that's so often used as a fallback to describe "my generation."
But I'm no fool. I went to college with plenty of people my age who thought they were God's gift to the world. Aspiring politicians who are surely destined to make the world worse and wannabe comedians who rigged the school talent show because they "deserved" to win. Obviously these kids had some issues. I'm willing to concede that Mommy and Daddy gave those children one too many "First Place for Trying" awards growing up.
But I don't think the problem here is overconfidence, because while it can be grating, it has also been known to help people get ahead. Some of the smartest, most successful people are arrogant jerks, so even through that lens it's difficult to consider self-esteem a bad thing. What disturbs me is when someone of an older generation the generations that raised us, directly or indirectly feels the need to "take those youngsters down a peg." The very same person who dumped McDonald's applications on Occupy Wall Street protesters could easily also be one of the many parents raising a child with the idea that they are "better than manual labor" that if they just go to college they'll never have to flip burgers at a fast food joint.
So yes, when you're conditioned by society to demand a job that will allow you to reach your full potential, it's hard to stomach the constant cries to suck it up and get a minimum wage job, especially when they're coming from the financially stable people who set you up for this fall in the first place.
The only problem is when self-esteem becomes self-entitlement; that's what leads to laziness, dissatisfaction, and a less valuable society. But guess who's instilling that sense of entitlement? Do I need to say it?
Parents. Baby Boomers. Gen X-ers. You.
Because my dad is right. We are the children you raised. Now deal with it.