The Subtle Art of Giving a Care
A look at some surprising antecedents of mental health and passion!
Hello, inspired humans! Let’s jump right into today’s Stuff.
ONE FROM THE AGES
Aristotle on the importance of having standards that are earned:
“Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.”
ONE FROM TODAY
Jonathan Haidt on the relationship between standards and mental health:
“Some constraint is good for us; absolute freedom is not. Durkheim, the sociologist who found that freedom from social ties is correlated with suicide also gave us the word “anomie” (normlessness). Anomie is the condition of a society in which there are no clear rules, norms, or standards of value. In an anomic society, people can do as they please; but without any clear standards or respected social institutions to enforce those standards, it is harder for people to find things they want to do. Anomie breeds feelings of rootlessness and anxiety and leads to an increase in amoral and antisocial behavior…
One of the best predictors of the health of an American neighborhood is the degree to which adults respond to the misdeeds of other people’s children. When community standards are enforced, there is constraint and cooperation. When everyone minds his own business and looks the other way, there is freedom and anomie.”
Source: The Happiness Hypothesis
ONE FROM US
Last week, I gave a presentation titled: Cultural Causes of Declining Mental Health. Since the Covid-19 lockdowns, socioemotional learning and mental health have been buzz topics in education. But, as I’ve tried to make clear in my book and many other presentations, these trends were overwhelmingly evident before Covid-19. It’s essential to take this into account when trying to reverse these trends.
Speaking to a large group of educators, I set out to explain many of the misconceptions that sabotage our attempts to improve mental health, and which often make things worse. The most important concept I wanted to convey was that the way to address mental health wasn’t to spot treat individuals who were struggling. Rather, it was to address the underlying cultural causes. As I said:
“We tend to look at mental health (physical too) as an individual problem. These people need individual counselling for their individually dysfunctional brains. They have X imbalance in their individual brains and individually need Y intervention to fix it.
And for those who don’t have clinical depression or a full-on “disorder,” but maybe are just a little unsatisfied with their life, we have self-help.
But the real source of and most profound solutions for this mental health epidemic are usually cultural. Look to the environment for the source and the solution.”
Many students and adults live in a world with nothing that is bigger than them—no apparent meaning. Raised on social media, reality television, and incessant advertising, their minds descend into a never-ending feed of entitlement and self-promotion. They feel aimless and angsty. But they aren’t motivated to do much about it. How do you even begin to help?
These issues go deep. Many students today have a large void in their development where exploration and discovery was supposed to be. Their natural sense of curiosity has been obstructed by the ever-present allure of screens. The result is that they have not cultivated a foundation for future interests. As occupational therapist, Victoria Prooday, explains:
“Using technology as a “Free babysitting service” is, in fact, not free at all. The payment is waiting for you just around the corner. We pay with our kids’ nervous systems, with their attention, and with their ability for delayed gratification. Compared to virtual reality, everyday life is boring.”
But just as significant, today, more and more kids grow up disconnected from a clear model of what it means to become an adult and, consequently, from any desire to become anything more. The heroes of today are almost exclusively celebrities—Kardashians, YouTubers, and the like. The rites of passage today are automatic. Keep showing up and you’ll graduate high-school. Turn 18 and we will call you an adult, even while your bills are paid and meals provided. There are routes to distinction, to be sure, but fewer formative challenges that everyone is expected to experience and fewer standards that everyone is expected to meet. This takes the pressure off, but it has a way of leaving one feeling hollow and uninspired.
Low expectations have the same effect on adults. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a colleague of mine at the end of the first full school year after Covid. He commented that after months of COVID-19-related confusion and criticism, school administrators didn’t care what was happening in each classroom. As long as teachers didn’t invite any more complaints, they’d be left alone. This, along with a number of other frustrating policies, had led to decreased student and teacher effort. As he said, “My job has never been easier, but I’ve never enjoyed it less. Jokes don’t land like they used to. Conversations are dull. Everyone is just trying to get through the year. I go home feeling dirty.”
By contrast, challenging work has a way of fostering greater connection, laughter, and zeal for living. When people have worked hard for something, they tend to care more and to be more bothered by those who would cheat the system. After reading an article I wrote for Quillette on lowered education standards, my father, the MD, PhD and late-blooming video-gamer, shared a fascinating insight. He identified a specific excerpt from near the end of my article, where I write:
"I have a radical idea. Assign grades based exclusively on academic performance—the quality of the writing, the accuracy of the math equation, the understanding of the historical themes. Grade everything for mastery, alone, and consider it a breach of ethics to do otherwise. Most students would work far harder, learn far more, and come to enjoy it. They’d invest enough to cultivate more rewarding interests and become better citizens. Some would not rise to the occasion and would be left behind. But that is already happening."
“It occurred to me… that your idea is precisely the approach that is applied by video game developers when they design games and award achievement trophies. On the video game websites (e.g., Reddit), players complain vehemently when other players find and utilize ways to "cheese" a game and "beat" the game without actually mastering the skills (for difficult games like Dark Souls, these "skills" are infinitely more difficult to acquire than the skills we currently teach in schools). One of the things I've seen over and over again in the Dark Souls online conversation is some new player complaining that the game is "too hard" and asking for an easy way to get through a difficult task. The answer is always resoundingly the same, so much so that it's become cliche: "Get good."
If video games, subject to relentless pressures from consumers, can employ such demanding standards (and in many cases, MUST employ them in order to maintain market share), then perhaps schools could meet them part way and demand at least a modicum of excellence.”
There is a sense today that standards are rigid and outdated. To some degree, this is warranted. Too many of the people who cling to standards push them in the wrong way (standardization) and do so out of a crotchety mix of self-promotion, disdain, and an unwillingness to adapt. These are the teachers who would rather make a kid feel like crap for being born into this generation than help them transcend its traps. Still, this does not disqualify the importance of standards. Nothing has been worse for our culture than the dissolution of our shared standards. Nothing would do more for our kids and our communities than to clarify cultural ideals, set expectations, and enforce standards of excellence.
Many people, especially within education, believe they are being “nice” by lowering standards and making life easier on kids. But all this does is to keep them a more limited and fragile version of themselves. Strong expectations promote connection through mutual values and capacities. When standards are reduced, we see just the opposite.
Justin has moved to new cities many times. He’s mentioned to me that the first thing he does anytime he moves somewhere new is to find a Crossfit gym. Justin and I have both written critiques of Crossfit, but we recognize how amazing Crossfit gyms are at building culture. Their success is built on creating really clear standards and methods to measure development, and adding to that a support system that cares about the integrity of those standards. The program follows a consistent set of mini-rites of passage that pull people together to celebrate each other and help everyone find new levels within them. At the end of the day, this is what life and community is all about.
Thank you for reading! This was a heavily edited and modernized version of an article I wrote over a year. Please share with anyone you think would find this interesting.
Also, if you are interested in the concept of standards, Josh Berlotti and I had a great conversation about the power of standards on his In Search of Wisdom podcast a couple weeks ago.
Life is too short to be normal,
In a wonderful moment of synchronicity, I had a conversation about this right before I read this article. We are seeing what happens when a generation of people (perhaps two gens in some places) are raised under what I have come to call the tyranny of low expectations.
We loosened standards and dropped expectations in the hopes of creating a kinder/warmer/more inclusive world for youths, and it seems to have backfired spectacularly. I believe children respond positively to high expectations! They want to be challenged, they want to be shown what can be possible at the highest levels at that age, it doesn't always have to make them feel excluded/anxious or defeated.
The expectations and standards ought to stay high. What could change is how we as adults and educators talk about it with kids.