In his now-infamous column printed in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week, writer Bret Stephens lambasted this year’s graduating college seniors for their shallow intellects, lack of practical skills and general conformism as a generation of young people. He points to discreet encounters with two young people as the basis for his sweeping generalizations, elevating a West Point grad now fighting in Afghanistan as the paradigm of an “honorable and meaningful life” and cutting into an Ivy League grad merely for not knowing that Dwight Eisenhower was the U.S. president in 1956.
It doesn’t take much to see that Stephens is full of hot air.
For starters, Stephens’ argument is not new or original, making his urgency seem overblown. He follows in the familiar tradition of the “kids these days” argument, in which the older generation laments the degradation of today’s youth and nostalgically longs for the way things used to be. Stephens is no the first, nor will he be the last, to prematurely write the obituary for American society while looking at the country’s young people. What’s lost on Stephens is that all of the “flaws” of our generation are just a function of our age, rather than some inherent character of our generation. Yes, maybe sometimes we are young and stupid. But so was he and the rest of his cohort at our age.
Stephens denounces our inability to think critically, and scolds us for not thinking outside the box, yet his argument is completely unoriginal; in fact, it falls exactly into the category of “fashionable” arguments that Stephens himself criticizes.
What’s even more troubling is Stephens’ disregard for evidence in this sweeping argument. He does not present any data or concrete evidence that our cohort is any different from his or any other generation upon graduating from college.
Stephens makes vast generalizations about an entire generation, using two incredibly specific examples of members of the class of 2012—his noble West Point grad and airheaded Ivy Leaguer— without acknowledging the wide range of skills, talents, and personalities that exist between these two options.
In condemning our preparation for the real world, Stephens also crafts a mistakenly narrow vision of a productive post-college life: one that includes a high-paying job or fighting in the military. He overlooks the graduate who plans to teach math in an inner-city high school, join the Peace Corps, or staff a public health clinic, each of which is a valuable post-college pursuit.
There are many spheres for implementing meaningful change—investment bankers, politicians and army personnel are not the only “honorable” and meaningful occupations.
Ultimately, Stephens’ message is as virtueless as he claims the class of 2012 to be. He pleads for us to “shape up” our minds, yet, as with the rest of his argument, offers no suggestions of how to do just that. Until he does, we’ll be moving forward.