Friday, March 24, 2017

The Hunger Games, the College Games

Mark Shiffman  has some interesting thoughts about why The Hunger Games has been such a huge hit with young Americans. The Hunger Games, in case you have completely lost touch with adolescent culture, is set in a dystopian future where the dictatorship seems to particularly hate young people. In this world adults train randomly selected teenagers to fight each other to the death in a great annual contest; the prize for the winner is extra food for his or her whole community. As Shiffman sees it, this is much like the way we train our young people for equally fierce educational competition, the winners finding a measure of security in an increasingly uncertain world:
More than a decade ago, David Brooks described a generation of America’s elite university students as “organization kids.” Their lives were obsessively scheduled around achievements designed to provide them with competitive advantages. Formed by a childhood crammed with cognitive enhancement and programmed activities, accustomed throughout high school to relentlessly grooming their résumés for selective college admissions, kept on track through it all with mood-stabilizing drugs, these organization kids seemed incapable of pausing to reflect on what gave any meaning to their efforts. Nor were they encouraged to do so. Success—defined as admission to elite universities and graduate programs, followed by plum internships and jobs—had become an end in itself.

I teach Brooks to my honors students in their first week of college. They recognize themselves in his account. But they also see an important difference. Unlike the students in the article, they no longer see ­themselves sailing through their lives of ­advancement with sunny confidence that they’ll land the dream job. They worry their achievements won’t be enough.

Given this worry, it’s easy to see why The Hunger Games is the novel of their generation.  Its dark emptiness resonates with students’ latent unease and dissatisfaction with their educational regimen, as well as with their worry that they’re all honed up with no place to go. Afflicted with a desperate compulsion for competitive advantage, they rack up majors, minors, certificates, credentials, and internships to keep them in the running for what they feel to be an ever more elusive success. They’re driven by fear.

According to Amazon, the most highlighted passage in all books read on Kindle—highlighted almost twice as often as any other passage—is from the second volume of The Hunger Games: “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.” Students want continual reassurance that they’re equipping themselves. They clothe themselves in an armor of achievement that they hope will protect them against uncertainties—of the job market, of course, but also deeper uncertainties about their status, their identities, their self-worth. Disciplines that have (or appear to have) a technical character and a clear arc of accumulated knowledge and skills leading toward a foreseeable career goal reinforce the feeling that they are working steadily, assignment by assignment, toward gaining more control over an uncertain future.
One of my sons is a particular fan of The Hunger Games, and I think he sees our educational system in exactly these terms. As he sees it, adults are always pressuring him to compete for prizes (grades, degrees, prestige, money) that interest him not at all, while paying no attention to him, his soul, his real desires. The harder anyone presses him to succeed, the more he thinks that they are thinking, not about him, but about themselves. Shiffman:
Students, when they enter the system of higher education or early in their experience of it, learn to distrust the system that is shaping them. Very likely this distrust has been taking shape during high school, consciously or not. This is a dimension of the appeal of The Hunger Games that had not entered my thoughts when I wrote about it in my article. The young people being trained for meaningless competition don’t know whether they can trust any of the adults mentoring them, whose motives are tainted by the underlying moral squalor of the whole system.
I have never had any useful response to my son because I never saw school like this. I studied because I liked it and competed because I liked coming out on top. Nobody ever had to tell me that school was important; I simply felt this in my bones. But my sons have other priorities, and whenever anyone tries to change their minds they instinctively rebel. From what I read, they are doing what thousands of their peers wish they were doing: saying so long to the career ladder and wandering off in search of some more authentic life. I wish them well, but I don't think our world is really the Hunger Games, or that the revolution of youthful authenticity the books posit is about to come to pass.


G. Verloren said...


"I have never had any useful response to my son because I never saw school like this. I studied because I liked it and competed because I liked coming out on top. Nobody ever had to tell me that school was important; I simply felt this in my bones."

Except you were told that school was important - just not directly, in plain spoken words. Rather, you were shown that school was important - indirectly, through the actions and demeanors of the people who educated you, and by society at large which impressed upon you the genuine value of education, and reinforced that notion at every turn.

Your generation had teachers and administrators that cared. You had genuine trust in your educators, and they were demonstrably competant. More than that, they had spines, and were willing to make special exceptions or other judgement calls as necessary, and to take responsibility for those decisions.

When you were in school, there was no such thing as a "Zero Tolerance" policy. If a fight broke out, the school took the damn time to figure out what happened and to deal with it appropriately. They punished the guilty, and they spared the innocent. There weren't automatic suspensions for victims who didn't fight back. The adults were using their brains to promote justice, not blindly following a set of unbending and draconian rules and directives. The letter of the law was not held above the spirit of it.

Not so in today's schools.

When you were in school, struggling students were allowed to receive special attention to help them along. It was actually physically possible to see the teacher after class, because there was actually a reasonable amount of time inbetween classes. A student could receive extra attention without parents throwing a fit because not everybody's child was being treated exactly the same. Worthy students who put forth appropriate efforts could be given a passing grade even if they didn't technically complete the prescribed materials as originally intended.

This would never happen these days.

When you were in school, students that were excelling were allowed special exemptions. A teacher who realized a student already had mastered the material could choose to let them skip over assignments. Why have them do senseless busywork when they've already proven they understand what they're meant to be learning? Why waste their time and have them jump through hoops for no reason? Let them spend their time in other more productive ways, like helping to grade tests, or studying for other classes, or even just reading a good book or sitting and daydreaming as a reward for mastering the material.

None of those things are allowed in modern schools.

G. Verloren said...


There are exceptions, of course. Colleges and universities actually still mostly behave in pretty reasonable ways, with professors that openly care, and administrations that allow them to do their jobs and make their own judgement calls.

But high schools? Middle schools? Elementary schools? Overwhelmingly, they're little more than glorified daycares. Everyone has to jump through the exact same hoops, be instructed in the exact same ways, and receive the exact same treatments, regardless of circumstances.

You've already mastered Algebra, and can easily prove your competance? Too bad, you have to waste your time and sit through the Algebra class for an entire year to earn the appropriate class credit - and that requires attending all the lectures, doing all the in-class assignments, completing all the homework, and taking all the tests.

And no getting bored and deviating from the plan in any way! Sit still and be quiet, despite having nothing to engage you! But don't you dare fall asleep! And pay attention in class, despite already knowing the material! I don't care that you aren't actually learning anything new - just keep jumping through the arbitrary hoops! Mastery of the material doesn't matter, only your willingness to conform and obey, regardless of the logical merit of doing so, or total lack thereof!

Students today are treated like garbage. There is no respect for them, their time, or their intelligence. There is no consideration of their needs or their futures. They are viewed as cogs in a machine, the mindless moving parts of some absurd bureacratic dance, serving no purpose except to be made to go through the motions of learning, without concern for whether actual learning is actually taking place.

And even colleges and universities aren't completely immune to this mentality. Plenty of schools exploit their students as sources of profit, rather than seeking to properly care for and guide them. It is not at all uncommon for schools to give out diplomas they absolutely know are effectively worthless. They'll knowingly allow 100 local students to seek degrees in a field or industry that only has 5 new job openings nationally every year, and make absolutely no comment it. So long as they're receiving tuition payments, they're more than happy to hand out worthless diplomas in return.

G. Verloren said...


P.S. - And that doesn't even begin to address how the "social contract" has changed since you were a student.

It used to be that tuition was very cheap and diplomas were pretty valuable. Nowadays tuition is very expensive, and diplomas are pretty worthless.

Previously, once you finished school you could easily get a good job and easily pay off your loans. Currently, once you finish school your job prospects aren't all that much better than they were before you started, and you'll be paying off your student loans for 30 years.

Before, you were expected to go to college because it was a good investment. Now, you are expected to go to college despite it being a bad investment.

David said...


I'm puzzled by your closing remarks, "I don't think our world is really the Hunger Games, or that the revolution of youthful authenticity the books posit is about to come to pass." I'm puzzled because your words seem so to contradict much of your own posting history. What do you mean when you say our world really isn't the Hunger Games? This very post seems to show that many, many young people (all those folks highlighting that passage on Kindle) think on some level that it is. And if our world isn't QUITE that bad, it nevertheless seems to be bad enough that it makes young people think and feel that way--as post after post on your own blog seems to attest.

And while there may be no positive, world-reshaping "revolution of youthful authenticity" in sight, surely there is at least a rebellion of authenticity, a collective no that springs from authentic discontent?

John said...

David, what I meant was that young people in our world are not in a position to stage a revolution and create a more authentic world.