The pressures today to get into a good college or university in the U.S. are enormous. In order to achieve this goal, many high school students not only work super hard to get a 4.0 grade point average (or as close as possible), but they also fill all their free time with all sorts of extracurricular activities designed to show that they are well-rounded people. Sports activities, art and music lessons, orchestras and bands, social clubs, honor societies and after-school and summer jobs. Competition to get into the top colleges and universities is ferocious, and many students are afraid of allowing themselves too much down time. And the competition is based on a single line of reasoning. A student has to get into an excellent college or university in order to get into an excellent graduate school in order to make the contacts that will allow him to get into the high-paying high-status jobs. And anything less than succeeding in this pathway of personal advancement is considered a failure. Schoolwork, sports, art, music, social clubs, honor societies, jobs, all have to be carried out perfectly in the minds of these students in order to stay in good standing with their schools and employers.
And the result of all this pressure – both external and internal – is a lot of mental health issues among these young people. Anxiety, depression, drugs, alcohol, delinquency, suicidal thoughts and suicide. A lot of students with serious psychological issues. It has never been quite like this before. And the question is why now.
Most young people in America are growing up with a level of ease and comfort unheard of in past generations. This level of ease and comfort is derived, among other things, from the modern technological devices that make their lives more frictionless. Everything from electric can-openers to cars. The ease and comfort is also derived from the modern consumer technology that makes life more mediated. Movies, television, video games, computers, smartphones, and tablets. All this modern technology leads to greater difficulty for people to make and receive organic imprints in order to feel alive, and also to greater difficulty for people to preserve imprints in order to create a surrogate immortality and prepare for death. Because opportunities for making and preserving imprints are scarce, young people are kept in a prolonged adolescence with more and more preparation for adult life required, so that they won’t have to provide competition for the adults by taking away opportunities for leaving imprints.
In such a situation, the main person available for leaving meaningful imprints is oneself. And they have to be strong intense imprints in order to feel meaningful. And the main sources for these imprints lies in the preparation for adult activity: the education and the extracurricular activities. Grades, of course, are part of the public record. But grades and the collection of extracurricular activities have an outsized effect on students who, in today’s world, have no other meaningful way of measuring their self-worth. This is particularly true as many life activities outside of the larger educational experience, and in particular recreational activities related to screen technology, become more frictionless and more mediated. Fewer and fewer things that require any meaningful participation.
It is true that there are external imprints to be preserved by a good student record starting with grade school and ending with jobs in the top firms or organizations in a given vocational category. But if one doesn’t get into the top schools or get jobs in the top firms and organizations, is one to be considered a failure? Of course not! But for many students, getting into the top schools or the top work situations is the only thing that matters. And the stress doesn’t go away once one gets into the preferred places. Then one has to constantly worry about if he is worthy of being in a top school or job, and if he is good enough to stay there. Again for these students, fighting for incredible excellence is a way of generating abrasive friction within themselves and pulling themselves out of the numbness they feel from the frictionless mediated living environment in which they dwell from the experiential vacuum. Therefore, for many of these students, being content with good but not top-notch schools and good but not top-notch job positions is out of the question. Such life situations would not provide the abrasive friction these students need to pull themselves out of their numbness and feel alive. It’s either total excellence or the living death of the experiential vacuum.
In order to succeed today, a student cannot permit himself real down time. He has to constantly be busy in order to accomplish success on the linear discrete path he has defined for himself. But without down time to reflect on himself and his situation, he becomes like a robot that has been programmed to do tasks perfectly, a machine that sets off to perform its tasks with minimal tolerance for deviating from certain expectations. So does a robot have the reflexive awareness to really enjoy and appreciate its successes? I think not. In the same way, students today trudge on, constantly on the move. The only deviation they seem to allow themselves is the deviation of depression that results from experiencing significant deviations on their road to success or significant failures.
And, of course, living in depression as a result of failure is, in a sense, similar to the external world, the frictionless mediated world of their daily lives. One is an internal experiential vacuum, the other is an external experiential vacuum. But the latter is something that students are trying to escape by creating an ongoing tension-pocket of their nonstop academic and later vocational treadmill. And creating a tension-pocket state of being is just as important to these students as trying to make and preserve some meaningful imprints, both on themselves and on a world which does not have many experiential spaces for making and preserving meaningful imprints. Ask assembly line factory workers about the meaningful imprints that they are preserving.
Only with blind ambition does one have the opportunity to make and preserve meaningful imprints according to the agendas of these students. Only with blind ambition can one generate the internalized abrasive friction to feel fully alive. And only with blind ambition today is one able to generate the level and quality of internal stimulation to be able to pull oneself out of the numbness, the experiential vacuum of modern technological society, and still remain functioning and successful within the external world. The problem is that the stress created by the abrasive friction that is internally generated can be so destructive. And this is why so many students today are succumbing to so many different pathological psychological symptoms. And given the expectations that develop within them in order to fight numbness, the treadmill of modern ambition becomes a treadmill that is very difficult to get off.
© 2019 Laurence Mesirow