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.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:
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.
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.