Is “Teaching Resilience” the Solution?

It has quickly become a cliché: students today lack resilience, grit, and determination. They need trigger warnings, safe spaces, and course work that will not frighten them. They are personally wounded if cafeteria food misses the mark in terms of cultural authenticity. And so on, and so on. There is the Atlantic piece on “The Coddling of the American Mind” and the ongoing debate in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and elsewhere about campus politics and attacks on “free speech.”

Many pieces on resilience refer to an essay in Psychology Today (cough, cough) by Peter Grey. It begins with some humorous, cherry-picked examples of Millennials being helpless and weak before moving on to impressionistic reporting by teachers and academics. Grey then offers generous, long quotations from other writers who also don’t offer much in the way of evidence for the claim that young people are quickly changing.

Finnish schoolchildren are sent out to play even when it’s below zero degrees fahrenheit. Could this be a sign of a culture that instills resilience?

What surprises me about this popular article is that it doesn’t appear to be about mental health. Sure, most teachers I know will agree that young people seem less resilient than those who passed through school a decade ago. I have felt that way.

But before I go farther, I want to ask, which students are we talking about? Are we talking about the high-functioning kids? That they need to be ready to endure the jungle of a deregulated, neoliberal world?  Or do we mean students who are struggling to get anything done? Both exhibit stress, for sure. Are their problems identical, generational, and emotional?

Oh, wait. Is this another one of those times when social issues get pushed onto teachers? Now in addition to instilling in them a love for community and service, multicultural awareness, dedication to the responsibilities of citizenship, innovation skills, “21st-Century skills,” the ability to ace the SAT as well as proficiency in STEM, the social sciences and languages, we are tasked with imbuing our students with grit?

This is either a social issue or a health issue. If it is about mental health, then it is something beyond the expertise of classroom teachers.

Yet, unless there is something in the water (besides lead), the problem is not intrinsic to the students. It can’t be. As fun as it may be for some to beat up on Millenials, they as a group cannot be the problem. If anything, they are victims of social forces they did not create and cannot yet control. They are, of course, the easiest to criticize because it is their behavior we notice.

Many articles on the topic of resilience and stress do just this. By coaching particular behaviors without looking at the conditions that necessitate those behaviors, they implicitly lay some–most?–of the responsibility for dealing with the way things are at the feet of the young.

In her praise for Angela Duckworth’s Grit, Arianna Huffington writes, “perseverance and passion matter at least as much as talent and intelligence.” With a lot of grit, a growth mindset and 10,000 hours of practice, our students can do anything!

24338401455_6409436cfd_bUnless of course, they are poor, live in broken communities, or attend under-funded schools. As Alfie Kohn and others have argued, grit is no cure for systemic inequality. Can anyone tell low-income students of color they just need a little grit and all will be well? Frankly, this talk sounds like Horatio Alger.

In addition to asking ourselves just who needs to be more resilient, I think it is fair to question why.

As I wrote in an earlier post, when I asked a room of Finnish teens what they felt they needed to rebel against, their answer was Baby Boomers who want to dismantle the social welfare system now that they have made their careers. I think there is a clue for Americans in here somewhere.

In a just society, resilience would be about confronting and overcoming the disappointments and setbacks that attend every life. But young people today worry about a set of issues that are much larger and more vexing. They worry, like the young Finns I spoke to, that the social compact is crumbling. Government is indifferent to their concerns; the cost of education and medical care are skyrocketing. Housing prices are obscene. And then there’s the Republican response climate change!

In this context, who is the role model for the resilience we demand of them? Muhammed Ali taking shots to the head from Frazier, Foreman, and Holmes but fighting on until the 15th round? I hope not. I don’t want my students to think life is about being like Bruce Willis in Die Hard. 

Perhaps it would be better to be honest with our students. To tell them that we too are frightened. That the problems of the world aren’t their fault but that others before them have faced similarly daunting worlds. I think we could coach them to go ahead and be furious about the fact that college is so expensive and careers so unpredictable. And, if educators and parents work with them on the skills that will make them “marketable,” we owe it to Millennials to also explain that many of their worries about the economy and the environment–about the future–are based on policies and policy can be changed.

Americans as a whole would be happier and more resilient if their social safety net were more robust, if more people felt hard work truly did pay off, and if they believed their government had their best interests at heart. These are monumental challenges. In the meantime, Millennials deserve an education that explains how society works, how we got into these messes, and inspires them to envision how they themselves might be part of the solution. After all, people who connected to a community and feel they are helping are among the most resilient.



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