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College Freshmen and Their Postmodern Dread

Reading an account in today’s New York Times about the poor overall emotional health of incoming college freshmen this past fall (the report also appears in The Chronicle), I felt a rush of sadness. What sorry times we live in that in a UCLA-administered national questionnaire this past fall, nearly half of all incoming college freshmen at four-year institutions ranked their emotional health “below average.” Data ranking how incoming freshmen at four-year institutions rate their emotional health goes back 25 years. In 1985, 64 percent rated their emotional health “above average.” This year, in contrast, only 52 percent of incoming freshmen rated it “above average.” The data also reveals that young women consistently rate themselves as less emotionally healthy than men, and that the gap is widening.

At precisely the moment in their lives when they should be experiencing exhilaration, excitement  and hope about their adult lives—at the moment we call the “flowering of youth”—a good half of our students are depressed, stressed and anxious enough to rate their emotional health as “below average.”

Campus psychologists and other experts attribute all of this to the fact that college students today are obsessively worrying about such things as the debt they will accumulate while going to college, whether or not they’ll be able to build a career, and the pressure they feel that they must, at all costs, “succeed.” (Those who zapped in on President Obama’s State of the Union address wouldn’t have gotten much comfort watching him try to rouse Americans into a frenzy of competitiveness.)

Because asking students to rate their own emotional health compared to their peers is fraught with subjectivity, the study on student self-assessment of their emotional health amounts to rather soft social science. Yet as Dr. Mark Reed, the psychiatrist who directs Dartmouth College’s counseling said, “Most people probably think emotional health means, ‘Am I happy most of the time, and do I feel good about myself?’ so it probably correlates with mental health.” Those are hardly reassuring words.

Curiously, the Times reports that three-quarters of the college freshmen answering the questionnaire demonstrating how stressed out they are rated their drive to achieve, along with their academic ability, as “above average.” In other words, we’ve raised young people so that they end up depressed, stressed out, anxiety-ridden and full of self-esteem. How’s that for a good society?

Although I wouldn’t quarrel with experts who offer psychological explanations for this oddball, paradoxical mix where self-confidence comes glued to anxiety, I wonder if they aren’t off track a little. Perhaps we’ve entered a century with a new kind of human dread—a kind never before seen in Western society. The new dread derives from the sense that society doesn’t really need, or have a place ready, for any young person emerging into adulthood. While we drill into our children the mantra that everyone is worthwhile, and each person is responsible for his or her own future, as any kid deserving of a college education can see, the reality is that modern America is a dog-eat-dog world, and we’re each on our own.

The dystopias of the 20th century were all about people caught up in the ugly gears of the industrialized world—people turned into deadened drones stripped of all individuality, freedom and dignity. The enemy was either indifferent capitalist forces or mind-controlling big government. Such movies as Fritz Lang’s dark Metropolis (1927) or the hilariously terrifying Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), or such books as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), drove home the brutal side of modernity. Modern human beings were transformed into disposable cogs designed for mindless machines—or worse, changed into poltroons manipulated and controlled by hideous, hidden, tyrannical forces of government.

The great postmodern dystopia, although it has yet to be written, by all rights ought to contain within it a line where a character who’s a college student blithely says to his depressed, anxiety-stricken college roommate, “Hey, sorry buddy, you’re on your own. You gotta get out there and make a Web site for yourself.”

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