Entitlement, humility, & self-esteem

Among my academic colleagues in the USA, I hear a refrain of grousing about so-called millennial students who, it is averred, perceive themselves as entitled to good grades, exceptions to rules such as number of absences, timeliness, and response to communication, and other “special treatment.” The general criticism goes along the lines of Kenrick Thompson’s letter to the editors of the Chronicle of Higher Education:

… I grew increasingly weary of all the whining, crying, excuse-making, and general lack of attention to responsibility that appear to characterize most of today’s college and university students. I began to sense a growing atmosphere of entitlement among a majority of my students, who apparently believe that society owes them an education. I even endured several instances of students’ insisting they should pass my course simply because they had paid their fees and purchased the required textual materials.

Thompson lays some of the blame for such behavior at the door of college administrators who care more about admission and retention numbers than about the whole package of education, which includes less-measurable outcomes such as personal responsibility and mature problem-solving. The Chronicle has published other essays on related topics, among them these by Elayne Clift and Frank Donohue.

Other critics have blamed Baby Boomer parents for overdoing positive reinforcement so that their offspring do not have to suffer from low self-esteem. These critics suggest the everybody-gets-a-prize approach has watered down the go-get-’em competitiveness formerly considered a hallmark of the individualist American.

The word “entitlement” pops up in a blog post by Toby Woodlief back in 2007, and certainly appeared in conversations I had with colleagues long before that; but there has been much general buzzing that this sense of entitlement is “a Millennial thing.”

What does entitlement really mean? Webster’s has three main entries, the third of which is: “belief that one is deserving of … certain privileges.”

I can therefore say that I believe I am entitled to something, and I can accuse others of feeling that way; but because the word is based upon the subjective sense (“feeling or believing” that one is “deserving of”), can I say for certain that other persons “believe that society owes them an education”? [Note, Thompson does qualify with “apparently”.] No one can independently ascertain what another person believes or feels. My students do not tell me they feel entitled to things.

Could this be just a problem of perception or point of view, as so much inter-generational sniping is? Certainly my generation received criticism for its youthful irresponsibility, though it was of a slightly different kind (drop out of the rat race, turn on, be free). Did we feel entitled to ignore the paths our parents took?

I wonder if the real reason older people feel so annoyed with Millenials is the perception that there’s so little humility among the young. Many people my age were raised with the Protestant ethic formula that one should be humble, and humility has long been valued by the Catholic church, as well. Humility is closely allied with shame, however–and even guilt, to some degree (original sin and all that)–giving us neuroses along with our humility. It depends, once again, on your sociological and personal outlook; I am not suggesting that humility is bad or good, nor that entitlement is bad or good. These are just extensions of feelings people have, of personal and subjective perceptions.

Blaming the young people, or blaming their parents, or blaming the culture, for that matter…none of it helps us to understand or to respect one another. And as fellow travelers on the planet, are we not entitled to at least an initial moment of respect?

A balance might be nice.

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I work with 18-year-olds every day, and I enjoy them. This is not to say that I don’t occasionally wish to wring their necks or boot them out of their warm beds in the morning or remind them that I am not here to make them feel good about themselves for no reason other than their uniqueness. It does not dissuade me from doling out Fs when Fs are deserved (or, shall we say, earned) or reminding them, now and again, that most of their annoyances qualify as first-world inconveniences undeserving of hysterical rants.

I try to keep in mind that they are still learning about the world of other human beings.

In time, if they are mindful and observant and lucky, they should discover that the participation trophy for life is life itself–

IMHO   😉

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