A modern practice in education, especially elementary education, is the ZONES of Regulation. In this model, we teach children expected versus unexpected behaviors, given the context of circumstances. For example, if we’re learning together, being in the Green Zone is what’s expected: alert, content, focused. If we’re on the playground, being in the Yellow Zone is entirely acceptable, because it’s expected: heightened alertness, perhaps a lot of action, louder voices, more movement. But in a collective classroom environment, Yellow Zone behaviors can be problematic for one’s self and other learners. And Red Zone behaviors – screaming, crying, rage, alarm – are very rarely expected behaviors, especially in school. But instead of saying it’s “bad,” which we never do, we say it’s “unexpected,” because there are circumstances in which Red Zone behaviors are not only expected but entirely appropriate: if someone falls and breaks their arm or if the house is on fire. Then, we would say that a Green Zone behavior is quite unexpected!
If we can (and we do) teach children that there is a continuum of acceptable emotions and behaviors, we ought to be able to take a little bit of our own medicine. Red Zone behaviors for kids are what I, as a sci-fi nerd, might in some cases think of as the Dark Side, and I defend it as expected and appropriate in some circumstances.
Last March, as part of the Slice of Life blog challenge, I authored a post on the Sith Code, and asked without irony, “is it unnatural or wrong to choose one’s self, one’s own wellness, one’s own safety? One’s own life?”
As you likely know if you know my work, I am an avowed enemy of oppression and an ardent champion of transgression, especially in the education space. These qualities also meaningfully and consistently inform my orientation to others, to psychology, and to society and its structures. It has long been my habit to seek out that which sets others free, and that immutable desire to liberate has become the cornerstone of my work with children. (Indeed, just this afternoon, well-timed fuel for this particular bonfire of inanity, my second graders watched a video that seemed to me overly reliant upon the idea of obedience, and it’s prompting quite a discussion about values.) Having found a growing group of fellow revolutionaries rising up against the structures that conspire or are explicitly constructed to oppress children, more and more in education appear to accept the maxim that I posited near the start of my first book on education:
“It is inhumane to view other people – not “even children,” but “especially children” – as ignorant, incapable objects that should obediently acquiesce and must be corrected when they don’t. That is a slaver’s mantra. It is a dictatorial, oppressive attitude, and I cannot abide harming children.”
It is axiomatic that children are often oppressed because they cannot by their nature defend themselves against oppression by larger, stronger people, in a system that does not recognize children as people. Children are considered – quite literally – to be objects in many cultures, given no rights and in many cases no personhood until they are what that society considers “adults.” This chattel mentality is present throughout modern American ideas about children, even if some may incorrectly think it anachronistic.
The natural lack of defense by children, of themselves, is quite precisely why I chose not to merely stand as an aegis between them and their oppressors, but to actively teach them personhood (transgressive though it is to the society within which I myself live) and to actively fight for them.
I mean precisely what I say: I fight for children, not just defend them. I will seek out the battlefield and initiate the first volley where I see injustice levied toward them. I will willingly and proactively wage social war, against the patriarchal and objectifying inhumanity that consigns people to non-personhood, where I see it. These enemies, rightly and clearly identified, stand against not only children, but against all who are othered. Knowing my enemies, and fighting them, is one of the most important incarnations of my most strongly-held ethics.
To fight for children is a crusade that has earned me anything from begrudging acceptance to honest praise by those who truly love children… but to fight for one’s self, even if for the same reasons and in the same ways, is a far stickier matter for many.
Not for me.
It is a given for most adults that we have the right to fight for our rights. Most adults, particularly Americans thanks to our historically-glorious if utterly-disregarded-of-late belief in ideals of enlightenment and liberty, believe that defending oneself against oppression, be it at the hands of the state or the hands of an individual or a group of others, is not only acceptable but a noble cornerstone of freedom. Defending oneself against violence – physical, material, sexual, emotional, relational, structural – and defending oneself against violation and injustice is in practically all circumstances a fait accompli wherever such wrongs may occur, in the eyes of those of us who uplift Thomas Paine.
However, there are those, often in the guise of “new age” zeitgeist, who are hellbent on nonviolence and kindness to the exclusion of all other attributes and courses. There are those who believe all shadow can and should be eliminated in favor of all light. There are posters, bloggers, vloggers, authors, auteurs, demagogues and dilettantes, who seem to revel in “positive thinking” and “the power of hope” and “attitude governing outcomes” as if they’ve never had to actually deal with any adversity beyond running out of vanilla creamer, but think that level of challenge equates to, say, poverty or racism or a broken vertebra.
It doesn’t. Some challenges are actually hard, and some challenges cannot be overcome through “staying positive.”
This piffle is not even exclusively the purview of the “shiny, happy people,” as it were. I saw a video recently in which conservative Arthur Brooks addressed the Kennedy School at Harvard, and suggested that his takeaway from a conversation with the Dalai Lama was that anger and contempt (polarization, as he says) should be met with warmheartedness. “You can show true strength,” Brooks said, “if the next time you hear contempt, you answer with warmheartedness.” He goes on to invoke the aphorism that your “enemies should be your friends.”
No. I refuse.
My heart cannot be whole if I warm it up to make it cozy for my enemies. And yes, I have enemies. You have enemies. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I don’t understand the thinking that there is no shadow and all men are my brothers, all humans my family. No they’re not. I didn’t invite that, and I certainly don’t want it. There are people who I loathe, for their cruelty and for the damage they do to others. There are people I know I cannot have in my life, because for whatever reason, I know they are toxic to my health. Who drinks poison on the basis that “all liquids are essentially water?” Who jumps into every river, because “we’re all originally children who float in the womb?” That’s delusional insanity from an amplified psychosis, and I don’t want that foolishness clouding my authentic perceptions of the world. I have enemies, and so do you.
Those who destroy me, are my enemies.
Those who destroy the people I love, are my enemies.
Those who destroy children, are my enemies.
And I will fight them. I will fight them. And you can fight, too. That is my TL;DR tag. Here, I’ll make one of those bloggy text boxes for emphasis, in case you were scrolling past my prolix penchant:
You have the innate and immutable right to fight your enemies, and those who say you can’t or shouldn’t are lying to you.
You have a sovereign, unimpeachable, sovereign, inborn right to the whole and full range of your humanity. You can have love and hate. You can have brightness and darkness. You can use passivity and will. You can not act and you can act. You can turn the other cheek and you can ball up your fist and smash back with all of your rage. You can be silent and you can speak. You can whisper and you can bellow with your primal power, and you do have primal power. It’s yours.
As Helen Caldicott said, “sometimes it is appropriate to scream at them.”
I am not saying that you may need help or healing before you have access to and feel the power to have those things; but the right to all of it is inborn. I have found that the only people in my life who help me have those things, not just want them in an abstract way, are people who recognize that wounds can compromise one’s access and ability in these regards. Reconnecting to the broken-off parts of our abilities, or cultivating the growth of those things in us that were denied nurturing, can be an arduous process. I have many things that I am working on “for me, in me,” all the time, but I am at least cognitively aware that I have the right to work on myself, and to develop the full range of my capacities. I am not required to polarize myself, for any reason, in any circumstance, no matter the forces that have tried to oppress me into corners and extrude me through their ideological matrices to take the shapes that they’d prefer.
I can be a Jedi and I can be a Sith, and I don’t have to choose either light or dark. I’m not playing that game. I am not a pawn. I am a person.
As Obi-Wan said to Anakin in the very context of requiring polarization, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” I will never be absolutely Light, and I will never be absolutely Dark. I am, as we all are, gray, and choosing to acknowledge and accept that isn’t “giving in to hate” or “going down a dark road.” There are dark roads that need light, but there are also terrible lasers that need to be blown up.
As Star Wars fans will note, the line that prompted Obi-Wan’s admonishment was Anakin’s declaration that if Obi-Wan “is not with” Anakin, then he “is against” him. One might take this to mean that the Jedi don’t believe in enemies, and that that’s a preferable way of being, but that isn’t so. Even the great Mace Windu was willing to strike down Emperor Palpatine for what he believed was the right ethic. Enemies do exist, whether people choose to see them or not, and if any group should have learned that the hard way, it was the decimated Jedi Order.
There is evil in the world, things that are polarized, and to those who think they’re okay, they’re polarized light, and to the victims of those things, it’s polarized dark.
The blithely saccharine is absurd in 2018. Euphemisms and niceties and the turning of cheeks and the quiet acceptance of horror is madness in the context of that horror. I had originally detailed here a list of the polarized, destructive things I see around me, but rather than an impossible-to-fully-account list, suffice it to say I don’t think you, dear reader, need to think very hard to conceive of the destructive things going on around us.
Am I to turn my cheek to this? Think positive will myself to be better? Do good in the face of such bad and “believe” that good will always win? Pretend it’ll all be okay?
No. I refuse.
Sometimes you fight. Sometimes you start the fight. Sometimes you smash them.
The idea that there is no shadow in the light is blithering and moronic, and shows not only a fundamentally lacking understanding of the physics behind the inaccurate analogy, it also shows a pollyannaishness that can comes from the privilege of isolation from reality, ignorance borne of some kind of privilege or of seething indoctrination that warped perceptions or cognitive reasoning, or an incredible amount of mood altering substance of one form or another.
For the rest of us who live in reality, things aren’t all light. There is darkness in the world, and in me, and it’s my right to have it, and to use it. Pretending that all is well does no one any good, and I don’t have any desire to “make myself” happy. Happiness is vastly overrated. Civility, as Hitchens said, is vastly overrated, in the context of waging war against oppression and abject violence. This principle seems only counterintuitive to those who’ve done little true fighting, so it seems in my experience. I choose instead of seeking “contentment” to fight for what I need, for what I want, for those I love. Advancement of my cause, is my cause, flying my own banner ever-higher, and while this is not to say that I seek to oppress others – I despise oppression – but it is not oppressive to demand, advocate for, fight for, and (damn it all) break in to the vaults and seize by force what is rightly mine.
My rights are mine. I am myself, and my self is mine. I have a sovereign, innate right to my agency. I have an unimpeachable, inborn right to my identity. My voice is my birthright. My freedom from violence is something I would kill for, and the kind of mindset that cannot comprehend fighting to the end tolive is an especially loathsome form of privilege to which I was never party.
Those of us who have been the object and victim of violence, especially as children, ought not be suppressed and mollified by florid sweetness. Our rage is righteous, and we can use it for profound good… and doing good for one’s self is good. I originally caveated this sentiment with the idea that that good for self ought not cause harm to others, but in the case of our enemies – those who seek to gain by oppression and destroy us – harm is a necessity. The material harm of those who seek to amass at our expense and exclusion, for example, is a justifiable harm. These are philosophical points, of course, but isn’t that the cornerstone of all of this?
Enough with philosophies of pacifying our anger at being wronged.
Enough with ideologies of accepting harm and violence.
Enough with suppressing ourselves for the gain of others.
The dojo of my growing and increasingly-free heart has no room in it for hanging mobiles made of sprites and gumdrops. I’m practicing the swordcraft of righteous self-centeredness, and cutting them down is not just okay, it’s good. While I aspire to be an ethical, moral, prosocial, pro-child, humanist self who believes in the unimpeachable individual and would, in the ideal, have all others except my enemies (oppressors, fascists, patriarchs, oligarchs, rapists, abusers, etc.) have those same rights, there is absolutely nothing misprioritized about putting allegiance to self at the center. I gave away far too much of myself to far too many people for far too long, and had far too little power over it all. That hurt. It hurt me as a child, when things were taken from me, when I was the object of violence, the subject of neglect, the sufferer of significant and formative pains. It hurts me still as an adult.
And it is understanding those wounds that empowers me to wage my war for myself against others who other.
“Dammit, Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!” – James T. Kirk in Star Trek V
I do not advocate causing others harm nor do I seek to do so. This piece should be taken as it is intended: a ferocious defense of ferocity, and an unrepentant support of going on the offensive against those who harm you. Your agency need not be exclusively pacifistic or “warmhearted” as Brooks suggests, and be it a transgressive and unexpected “NO!” when you actively deny your consent or the destruction of a relational dynamic that is poisonous to you or a physical response to someone who violates your person, you have a right to your Dark Side. It is an intrinsic and innate part of the human condition, and I have absolutely had it with “be nice, be happy” people who think our anger is wrong.
It’s not. Sometimes it’s appropriate to scream at them, just like Caldicott said.
So Brooks and the Dalai Lama and the New Agers and the turn-the-other cheek cheeks can keep their “it’s all light” and “there is no shadow” and “darkness begets darkness” nonsense to themselves. I’m better able to be me by being an authentic, fiery sagittarian. I am a warrior in defense of children, including my inner child, and I will if necessary start and win wars to protect him.
In Amistad, John Adams (portrayed by Anthony Hopkins), states the following, rebuffing the words of John C. Calhoun advocating that slavery is natural, moral, and inevitable:
“Now, gentlemen, I must say I differ … offering that the natural state of mankind is instead — and I know this is a controversial idea — is freedom. Is freedom. And the proof is the length to which a man, woman, or child will go to regain it, once taken. He will break loose his chains. He will decimate his enemies. He will try and try and try against all odds, against all prejudices, to get home.”
He will decimate his enemies. He will try and try and try, against all odds. This is, in stark contrast to the slaver’s mantra that depersonalizes others, a warrior’s mantra that steadfastly and strongly refuses to be depersonalized. We have a right to fight for our freedom, for our truest selves, and in doing so, we can use our agency for what ostensibly is “genuine good.” In being ferociously allegiant to myself, I have found that I am more ethical, more honest, more able to love, more able to find joy, more able to laugh, more able to do what I consider to be “good” in the world… but none of that is required of me.
I think I’m a good person in many ways, and I aspire to be the best I can, consistent with my ethics, and it is true that I abhor most violence in most circumstances. I said at the outset that I am an avowed enemy of oppression and an ardent champion of transgression, and that I seek out that which sets others free. Freedom is of utmost important to me, and I want others to have it, too. Societal and especially political structures are very difficult sometimes, and I do not pretend to have all the answers to every question, but I have found this one central tenet to be true, and worthwhile to write about here, in response to the recent spate of idiotic social media “think positive” memes that have floated across my screen lately: That darkness is not necessarily bad, and lightness is not necessarily good.
Polarization is unhealthy, in my experience, and I claim my right to the whole, full, rich continuum of feelings, thoughts, and powers that help me be who I really am, and to do what I really want to do.
And I’ll fight with that full range. I’ll fight, and I’ll win.
Yesterday’s NPR report from Tovia Smith highlighting cell phone confiscation in schools yet again highlights the layperson’s and traditionalist’s misunderstanding of the underlying etiology behind so-called systemic distraction in schools.
Students who are distracted, bored, and constantly reaching for their phones are being failed by poor pedagogy, and the suggestion that merely banning the device is a valid solution to this miseducation is a constant frustration for we professional, progressive pedagogues.
It is entirely inappropriate to blame students for the failures of the school, or of the teaching. As I write about extensively in Insurrection, it is our responsibility – professional, ethical, and indeed moral responsibility – to design teaching to achieve learning and needs-meeting for each individual student. The report’s inference that “all eyes on the board” is a desirable state for learning underscores the traditionalist, banking-style pedagogy being employed by the schools highlighted. Lecture, teacher-centric practices, and the nearly-fascistic demanding of attention from children who have not been authentically, meaningfully engaged through well-designed, appropriate learning opportunities cannot be resolved through bagging cell phones.
I’m constantly amazed how rapidly people will scream and yell about electronic device addiction, and yet have no trouble whatsoever perpetuating miseducative and regressive pedagogical practices. It is a prison-like affect, and that belies the social roots of the school and the historic methodology employed by such schools.
If a smartphone is being used in a classroom, if the instruction is well-designed, that use will be either benign or educational in nature. I am utterly unconvinced that any of the stories highlighted in the piece, or that I’ve heard or seen from schools that insist upon student restriction instead of teaching improvement, reveal authentic, student-centered, well-designed, and relevant pedagogy. “Sit there, be quiet, pay attention, and look up here” is the hallmark of the Dickensian schoolmaster, and has no place in today’s schools.
My buddy Rob Furman and I are coming to the end of Season 2 of The Seditionists, our video blog series tackling emergent and revolutionary issues in public education. For the sake of all of our various audiences, here’s a “catch you up” series of videos to get you current with The Seditionists!
The Slice of Life Blog Challenge is sponsored by TwoWritingTeachers.org.
I was humbled to discover that I was nominated for the National School Board Association’s 20 to Watch list, which identifies “education technology leaders who have the potential to impact the field for the next 20 years.”
My goal has always ever been to help as many kids as I can, and it’s nice to hear sometimes that I’m not not doing that.
I was a music teacher for the first part of my career in public education, a middle-and-high school band director (taught 5 through 12 all in one job!) in a small, rural, poor school division in Western New York. After moving to Virginia, I was an elementary school music teacher and middle school band director for years, and had a self-contained special education music class for children with profound cognitive deficits. I adored the class, and was encouraged to teach my methods for adaptive music education techniques to my colleagues at a county-wide professional development fair. Jan Streich, then the ed tech director for Stafford County, saw my work and said I had a knack for teaching teachers how to teach. She facilitated me joining an M.Ed. cohort to study educational technology, because it would help me help more teachers help more kids.
I confess: I’ve wondered, at times, if I am actually doing that.
I desire deeply to, and believe in my heart that I do, love children authentically. I believe that love ismust be the cornerstone of everything we do in the craft of teaching, from pedagogy to design to policy to tone of voice to furniture selection. I need, and demand, that all teachers develop a robust educational philosophy rooted in the love of, and consequently the authentic perception of, children. I’ve no patience for bootstrapping or coercive mentalities in our vocation; a failure to perceive children truly entails an inability to perceive the individual child truly, and that is a tragedy I cannot abide. But in my efforts to make things better for children in one place, so I can model good teaching and enjoin others to our loving cause of empowering and setting free the child mind, I wonder if my work truly matters. If one more revolutionary voice is going to make a difference in the face of such titanic obstacles such as the intransigence of society, the historic misperception of children as chattel, and the ever-present specter of unloving ideology.
Most of the time, I feel like I’m doing good work, and occasionally I feel overwhelmed. Sometimes I’m daunted to tears or frightened to paralysis about how deeply wrong things are, about how far we have to go, about how I’m neither smart enough nor strong enough to truly make a difference.
I question everything. I question you, and me, and everything we do. For all my passion and strident tone about things that are right and things that are wrong, about allies and enemies of children… I live in the gray, on a constant set of continuua, and I question everything. It’s my nature. I have a hand-calligraphy-drawn Japanese print in my apartment that reads, “Question Everything,” a gift from many years ago, so apparent is it to those around me that I take a flamethrower to complacency and am never truly sure that anything is so. It’s why I’m an empiricist, and seek facts, and then question truth to see if it’s really true. I don’t know how else to get to the bottom of these terribly complex system and problems. In doing such questioning, I question myself. I question my cause. I question my work. I question my motives, my methods, and my mettle.
I’ve long been accused of being “arrogant.” My classmates called me that. My parents told me that. My brothers told me that. My colleagues told me that. My teachers told me that. And I understand why, I do… the way I speak, the approach I take, that can draw hard lines in the sand when I feel injustice is at work, when I feel coercion or cruelty is in play, or – to be honest – when I feel hurt or sad or angry, and as a Sagittarian, I am often angry, usually on behalf of someone else…
I hope I’m not arrogant. I hope I’m not deluding myself. Spoken aloud in Red’s Shawshank-concluding hushed tone, “I hope…”
I am often insecure, as I don’t take much for granted, and so I don’t take it as a big “pat on the back, attaboy” moment when I realize that a colleague has taken the time to say, to one of the most prestigious educational organizations in the country, “KDR does good work for kids.”
If that is all anyone ever remembers about me, I’ll have done what I set out to do.
My goal has always ever been to help as many kids as I can, and it’s nice to hear sometimes that I’m not not doing that.
This illogic betrays the insidiousness of the objectification and depersonalization that runs rampant through conservative attitudes towards children, especially in the context of education. The idea that feeding children must yield “demonstrable evidence” of students becoming “productive members of society,” or else it’s a “waste of hard-earned money,” is disgusting, disgraceful, discompassionate, and unworthy of America. It should be shouted down as the ridiculous and cruel notion that it is.
Feeding hungry children is always good. SeanSpicerPeriod.
Feeding hungry children is always compassionate. SeanSpicerPeriod.
And feeding hungry children ought to be the duty of any adult who has any ability to do so, let alone the duty of this nation and this society. KDRPeriod.
“There’s no free lunch” is a disgusting attitude as a general rule, but when applied to children, it shows a profound disregard for human life and a deep pathological ability to dehumanize little kids. It should shock us, incite our outrage, and enjoin a commanding strike back at such heinous harshness. We must speak and act vehemently against this kind of anti-child attitude, lest we are complicit in the demise of even one kid. Children should never be starved: not for love, not for affection, not for clothing or shelter, and never, ever, ever for food and water. Not here, not anywhere, not ever.
I’m incensed nearly beyond words – though let’s be honest, I’m rarely without those when it comes to defending kids against this kind of brutal mindset – that any person could be so callous as to suggest that feeding kids should “yield” anything.
This nauseating insanity that everyone – even children – must do entirely for themselves or they “don’t deserve” assistance or aid is one of the hallmark misconceptions, a psychoemotional plague rooted deep in, the conservative attitude toward children. They are not property. They are not objects. They are not instruments of economic growth or vehicles for elder care or small adults or empty incapable vessels.
I’ve written extensively about what I consider the damnable dangers that such attitudes, so I’ll say this, a quote from Page 45 of the first edition of Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children, from Section I: Learning and Teaching, and the chapter entitled “Pedagogy for Freedom:”
“Children are not vessels to be filled. Children are unique, powerful intellectual, emotional, and creative beings, and should be loved as such. As I have said, children have but one purpose, and it is to be. Children are not to be turned into something; they are not to be done to at all, save one thing: Children are to be loved, and you cannot love a person through coercion.”
The viciousness of this administration’s attitude toward children is not a new invention, but a perpetuation of the dangerous, deadly misperception of children in far-right ideology. It is incompatible with modern pedagogy, with public education, and with everything we know about what’s healthy for children.
When I sit down to have a conversation with a student about choices, I think so often about the times I was “in trouble” in school, and how much better I’d have responded – and about the potential wing-spreading I could have done – if someone had sat down and related to me.
We have such power, and to cling to it and wield it is tyrannical. We must seek at every turn, in every interaction with every child, to give them the power. To ask them, invite them, to express themselves, and ask questions, and meaningfully seek greater understanding. Every moment is teachable, because every moment, they are learning.
To see tears welling in eyes recede, as the Sword of Damocles fails to drop and a whole invitation to a world of acceptance, kindness, thoughtfulness, reflection, and FREE CHOICE opens before them, brings me, at times, to tears.
I love children, authentically, and demand that all teachers love them.
We cannot afford to lose one moment of one day, with even one child, to our adult vanity, expedience, systemized thinking, antiquated notions, or harshness. There is no such thing as too much love for children, and I count myself in the most fortunate and critical situation to understand this and the mountainous research that supports it, and to be able to practice my craft to send healed little ones back into the world, having learned a lesson free of harshness.
There is no substitute for love. Not discipline. Not structure. Not hardness. Not consequence. There is NO substitute for love. It must be our foundation, or we are absolutely in the wrong place, as pedagogues.
Simon Sinek is a self-described optimist and a multiply-published author who speaks quite a bit about leadership. Mr. Sinek went to Brandeis and got a bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology, so it is safe to say that he is not an expert in child development, pedagogy, or alcoholism, but he seems to have no trouble speaking at length about what’s “wrong with” Millennials, as he does in his 3.5M+ view YouTube video, “On Millennials in the Workplace.”
I take exception to quite a few of his characterizations in this video, and am compelled to respond as someone who believes the evidence does not support the accusations hurled at “Generation Y” or the Millennial generation, and that that dearth of evidence mirrors and reinforces my personal experience, having taught many of these students and having watched many of them thrive because of their unique generational characteristics, not in spite of them.
Unlike Mr. Sinek, I am an academic, and I’m not using that term haughtily here; but it does infer that one has to pass a higher bar for me to accept something as “true” than to see it a few times or to hear others say it repeatedly. In the course of researching my first book, Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children, I had to immerse myself in quite a bit of challenging research and a significant review of literature that gave me a far deeper appreciation for the variables that influence the development of a child and the growth of that child into an adults. From this position – one of research married with experience within the field of education, and therefore the growth of children into adults – I can speak to some of the fallacies and misperceptions Sinek levies in his video. But first, let’s talk about who we’re talking about.
Millennials, born after 1982 and up through roughly 2000, give or take, are among the most egalitarian, social justice-minded people ever born in the history of our species, surpassed perhaps only by the incoming Generation Z. They believe in animal rights, support equal rights for queer people and ethnic minorities, eliminating hate speech, drawing attention to rape culture, fighting patriarchy and sociopolitical oppression… 80 million Americans fall into this generational definition, the largest generation in America. Thanks to the Great Recession and the policies of Boomers and Xers, Millennials carry a trillion dollars in student loan debt, despite being told that education is critical and their schools being flagrantly irrelevant and antiquated in so many jurisdictions. 63% of working-age Millennials have a Bachelor’s degree but 48% of those graduates don’t need their degrees for the jobs they’re able to get. 64% of Millennials would rather be happy and have a job they love than make more money and be bored, a shocking turnaround from two generations prior. Half of them believe Social Security will fail, and over 90% of them believe that profit alone cannot define a business’s success.
80% of Millennials prefer immediate feedback over incremental review, 56% won’t work at a company that has punitive anti-technology policies, 71% ignore policies that do exist because they’re punitive, 69% believe on-site presence is not necessarily critical to job performance, but Millennials are staying longer at their jobs and are measurably more loyal to employers than Generation X people did despite the common perception they’re staying at a job for less time.
35% of Millennials start their own small businesses in addition to working a more traditional job. 54% want to do so.
84% of Millennials want to make a substantive difference in the world more than they want professional recognition. Working in international diplomacy is the fourth most ideal job for the Millennial generation that is so often excoriated for being disconnected and disinterested in public service. Millennials value “community,” “family,” and “creativity” to degrees never before seen in prior surveys of generations. Their task-switching abilities – which previous generations erroneously called “multitasking” – are extraordinary in no small part due to their use of task-switching resources and technologies, giving them a neurobiological plasticity and flexibility that other generations simply lack.
This is reflected in their academic performance. As Howe and Strauss wrote in Millennials Rising, citing student performance data as well as professional educator evaluation data, “Millennials are … a generation of positive trends in educational achievement.”
Millennials are the most diverse generation in history (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000) and exponentially more ethnically and racially tolerant than any generation before them. They’re also more responsible with physical relationships, are more interested in avoiding or delaying sex, and are vastly less violent than preceding generations (Howe & Strauss, 1999).
While it’s true that empirical evidence does show that Millennials tend to score higher on traditional mechanisms measuring narcissism and lower on empathy, it’s also true that some of those traditional mechanisms stem from a time prior to the advent of digital technologies, and may not account for an increase in individual agency. We know that priorities within the hierarchies of needs change based on age; it may be that new control mechanisms and better studies are required, because despite seeming to show more narcissism in Millennials, we do not see the usual correlations in decreased giving, charity, volunteerism, optimism, altruism, or willingness to assist others in need that one would have previously expected.
Despite being “just as good” as prior generations and being optimistic and hopeful, when controlled for the impacts of the Great Recession, Millennials as a generation are making 20% less, have been left a disastrously eradicated housing market and economy, a planet teetering on the edge of ecological collapse, global sociopolitical tensions created by values and circumstances they find repugnant, and have dimmer prospects for advancement and success than generations prior through no fault of their own. In short, Millennials have been pretty screwed, pretty badly, and still manage to want to stamp out bigotry, uplift people, and make the world a better place.
Let’s start there, instead of the usual exhausted narrative about them being lazy (they’re not), privileged (they’re not), and unwilling (they’re not).
Time to tackle Sinek’s video. While he lands on an acceptable overarching point – “balance is important” – he spends fifteen minutes demonizing technology and Millennials far more than he endeavors to point out the absurdity of outmoded corporate environments.
It is absolutely true that Millennials are altruistic, and care about making the world a better place. While they may not always have, in their younger years or in their initial indoctrinations into a particular field or topic, the language or concept to articulate precisely what a “positive impact” may be, they’re also deeply involved in levels of academics at which previous generations stagger, and show a particular robustness in understanding patterns, trends, and complex problems. It’s not a bad thing to want to “make a different” or “have an impact,” as Sinek seems to scoff at as being nebulous or unimportant in his opening. (Fortunately he’ll back off this a bit later, but we’re taking him as he goes.) The dismissive attitude that is frequently levied against Millennials that is rooted in seeking specific quantification in an historic way is an example of the amplification of generational misapprehension and misunderstanding of subsequent generations. Older generations have the advantage of more robust networks of experience upon which to draw, and too often use this as punishing invective instead of entertaining innovation when it crosses the desk. The same phenomenon exists between Adults and Children, which I’ve written about extensively, but I find the Boomer-Millennial divide to mirror this: “Well, what does impact look like? How will you positively change X variable, which we’ve identified as the true measure of success?” I’m not saying that experts can’t be experts – to the contrary, I rail against that kind of anti-expert rhetoric – but a Millennial who comes to the table wanting to make things better by speaking about the outcome is engaging in backward design, and allowing an organic, messy, convoluted design process to evolve in nontraditional ways is innovation in and of itself, and I consider it the responsibility of anyone in a position of “management” or “authority” to take the time to allow fruitful failure or unexpected success by allowing Millennials to use their substantial gifts to try things. This generation will repeatedly try and fail in remarkable ways with remarkable diligence and endurance, provided they have the intrinsic motivation any Ed Psych 101 student knows is more powerful than whatever extrinsic motivator you put on the table. Creating conditions of relevance is the responsibility of the teacher, not the student; so, too, is it the project leader’s or institution’s responsibility to create those same conditions for their employees.
I digress here to call out silly distractions like “they want free food and beanbags.” Come on, Simon.
If you’re being serious, then Millennials acclimating to nontraditional ergonomics and seeking to create comfortable and familiar environments that disengage from traditional oppressive structures of form and instead individualize workspaces and environments is not only a good thing, but has been shown by countless designers and researchers to be beneficial to creativity, productivity, and outcomes… so yeah, beanbags might be just what the office needs. If you’re being snarky, then you’re only underscoring the dismissive, haughty attitude that Millennials rightly perceive in those who speak about the instead of to them.
I am indignant on the behalf of Millennials in the same way I’m indignant on behalf of children when older laypeople snark at them. If you’re going to be academic, be academic, and if you’re not, then don’t expect to be taken any more seriously than a beanbag punchline. (Also, ensuring your workers have food when the economy that your generation left them is a flaming dumpster fire might not be such a bad idea, yanno? But let’s get back to it.)
Sinek identifies here his four domains of complaint about Millenials: Parenting, technology, patience, and environment.
Sinek has a cultural anthropology background, and so I’ll grant him expertise in speaking, to an extent, about parenting in this context. That said, he fundamentally misunderstands the concept of “special,” when he calls out as part of the (unarticulated in this video) “special snowflake” meme. Originating around the film Fight Club for all intents and purposes, “special snowflake” is a derogatory term used by previous generations to suggest that individuals are not unique and special, and deserve no recognition as such, instead choosing to suggest, implicitly or overtly, that people must earn any acknowledgement of their individuality through toil.
This is, in a word, nonsense.
The sovereignty of individual identity and agency is critical not only to progressive pedagogy but to understanding children, let alone developing interpersonal prosocial relationships. Understanding that each individual has their own perspective, cognition, identity, and sovereignty of person is a critical concept in interpersonal relationships. Homogenizing individuals into groups, classes, or blocs is a form of erasure, blotting out individual humans on the altar of a broader humanity, and while it is not invalid to be concerned with or about broader humanity, one cannot exclusively relate to groups. Interpersonal relationship is critical – as Sinek will go on to say himself – and yet he indicts individuality here as somehow bogus, suggesting that there is nothing intrinsically special about any one person. Yes, there is, Simon: Every individual is unique and must be approached and conceived as such, lest overgeneralization, stereotype, and assumption usurp the individual person’s sovereignty and, therefore, ability, leading to – in Sinek’s context – a less fulfilled, less understood, and potentially less “productive” partner or associate. Again, this broad-sweeping überlanguage that speaks over Millennials instead of to them, and speaks about Millennials instead of with them, is a disturbing artifact of generational paternalism, though certainly not unique to Millennials as any person will tell you about the generation of their parents.
Individuality and individualism are fundamental values that people in America will often hold up as rightly American. To denigrate individualism and individuality with snark belies a particularly craven perspective not only of Millennials, but of one’s fellow human. Demanding that one be addressed as one’s sovereign self instead of being oversimplified into or coopted by a demographic or statistic is an act of dignity and self-worth, nothing less, and to dismiss it is to undermine human dignity and sovereignty. I resent the language Sinek uses in this passage, as it objectifies the Millennial into a “nail that sticks out of a board” or an “undeserving stander in a crowd of sitters.” Compliance is not a desirable characteristic in children or in adults. But don’t take my word for it.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers in 2016 described autonomous and independent soft-skills as critical to success in the contemporary workplace: Leadership, in which an individual progressively thinks and self-organizes. The ability to recover from failure, the mechanisms for which will vary wildly from person to person based on a variety of neurocognitive and psychosocial factors. Clear communication. Affability. Adaptability. Passion. Many of the top qualities NACE identified require a deep sense of individuality and self-awareness that cannot be achieved through imposed homogeneity.
It is not improper for Millennials – as many of us of older generations who are members of historically suspect classifications, such as females, people of color, or queer people – to demand individual sovereignty and agency in the face of institutions or movements that have denied them. To the contrary, each generation in its turn has celebrated civil rights victories. The generation that grew up in the late 19th century won suffrage for women in the early 20th and every subsequent generation has continued to demand equality for women, slowly eroding sexism. (And let us not kid ourselves: women today continue to be globally oppressed, objectified, and materially harmed, including being denied individual sovereignty and agency.) The Silent Generation won voting rights for people of color in America and every subsequent generation has been building up to address ever-more-apparent, ever-more-repulsive racism, culminating in but presumably not ending with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and Millennials are at the forefront of recognizing that there is a great deal of work still to be done. More and more, individuals fight more strongly against being denied their uniqueness on the altar of statistical simplicity or expedient demography, and as social scientists and pedagogues of any generation, we pro-child, pro-individual radicals join the Millennials, or more accurately laud them joining us in that effort. From personalized learning to the rights of the individual – the good of the one outweighing the good of the many as Kirk may have told Spock – social progress eschews forcibly grouping people into what Vidal rightly called ghettos of social order.
Another snark of Sinek’s that frosted my proverbial cupcakes was the suggestion that Millennials were told “you can have anything that you want just because you want it.” Point me to one legitimate parenting book, one organized class or school of parenting thought of my generation, show me one identifiable source of authority or note that ever said that that was a legitimate parenting skill. There’s a fundamental and not-at-all semantic difference between telling children that their aspirations matter and their potential is significant, and telling children there’s no investment to be made to achieve. The latter it not at all what is said, and I challenge Sinek to find any source that says otherwise. Name one person you know who was ever told that wanting was all that was needed. Name one person of our generation who said that to their kids. Name one. No way. It’s one thing to indict a generation of parents for going a little too far in promoting an idea of boundlessness without addressing the real structural violence and imposed social mores of generational and institutional stricture, and quite another to say that parents raised kids telling them they never had to do anything to have everything. That’s beyond hyperbole; it’s just not accurate, and I’ve found zero sources to suggest that there is any truth to Sinek’s assertion in this instance.
I was honestly surprised to hear someone who studied anthropology at Brandeis speak in such nonacademic terms on a subject already too overpopulated with lay opinion and inaccuracy. I don’t have time for non-empiricists when it comes to children and our future generation. Anecdote and opinion does not authority make, and while I’m guilty of editorializing and opining frequently and sometimes forgetting my platform, this isn’t one of those instances. I’m an academic putting my work in writing here, not having a Diet Dr. Pepper at the Four P’s around the corner. This is a serious subject and a video that has 3.5M views on YouTube alone and who knows how many Facebook posts, reposts, and likes, I’m going to hold Sinek to at least a modicum of academic standard and demand production of a source, or discard this assertion as groundless.
I consider that kind of inaccurate over-broad picture-painting to be haughty and bullying.
On the subject of schooling, if you’re read even a fraction of my work, you know that Sinek hits on something important in discussing the problems Millennials faced in schools. They perceive school as boring, antiquated, uninteresting, out of touch, irrelevant, impersonal… and they’re right. They’re absolutely right, and serious educators know that and are working tirelessly to change it. The institution of the school in America is dangerously out of date, and the fact that schools in America are affording opportunities and situations better than, say, an isolationist religion-only extremist enclave of indoctrination in a third-world country, that doesn’t let them off the hook in my book, and certainly doesn’t give the traditional Reform voice credence when it says “our schools are doing just great and everybody should leave them alone.” However, this post is about Millennials, and I won’t digress – this time – into things you can read about throughout this blog and my published works and offered oratory. Suffice it to say, Millennials were victims of poor schooling models, but so have the members of every generation that came before them, in the view of many of we radicals and revolutionaries. Sinek’s lament about grade inflation and unearned accolades underscores the massive flaws that exist throughout traditional assessment systems, which have recently been a particularly passionate topic for me, and upon which I’ll be speaking at length at the 2017 International Society for Technology in Education conference in San Antonio, Texas this summer.
Sinek also references (presumably) the research of Alfie Kohn, specifically Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. He’s absolutely correct that there are serious problems with artificial incentives, though one must take care not to conflate erroneous reward-based structures and the invalidity of eliminating unhealthy competition. As a career music educator, I’ve always been ambivalent on the subject, and take great care not to make the research say something it does not, and while the state of the literature certainly does indict the artificial and inflationary homogenization of aptitude and achievement to which Sinek alludes, it also seriously questions the validity of engendering competition among children, as underscored by some of the remarkable successes of Responsive Classroom and similar frameworks that eschew competition in favor of appropriate mechanisms of recognition, and the promotion of individuality within a free collaborative environment. Millennials respond well in these circumstances, and while I have no evidence, I sometimes wonder if that isn’t partially because they’re annoyed by nonsense trappings of recognition precisely because they experienced them. (That’d make for interesting graduate work for a Master’s student; I wish I were still teaching at The George Washington University or else I’d pitch it as an idea to a grad assistant…)
I will say that there’s nothing wrong with telling people that “just” showing up matters, and there’s a hypocrisy evident in the false narrative raised by critics of Millennials in saying they “just want credit for showing up” but then call them “apathetic.” There’s something important about showing up to a rally, to a protest, to stand the line against a greater power. In such a case, showing up may be the only thing that truly does matter, and yet another bloviating oversimplification does nothing for anyone.
I see no substantive evidence that Millennials are prone to the fragile disintegration Sinek highlights. This strikes me as a distillation of the generational lament, rather than an empirical observation of Millennial behavior writ large. How many Millennials do you know who are so isolated, fragile, and devoid of identity and network that they shatter at the mere suggestion of imperfection? I know a total of zero such people, and while here I descend in the anecdotal just as Sinek does, my suspicion of his position drives me to the research: As of 2014, Millennials were 27% more likely to keep their commitments in the new year. They are more honest about their skills than the prior two generations. They were 16% more interested in personal improvement than the generation prior. Not only can Millennials “tolerate” critique, they’re more likely to be honest with themselves about their need for it.
The profound arrogance of my generation and the Boomer generation in lambasting Millennials as “fragile” is not just maddening; it’s just wrong.
In the latter part of the video, Sinek seems to suggest that modern parents are imbeciles compared to their older counterparts, and that softness, kindness, empathy, and security in knowing one’s uniqueness and value are negative characteristics to be “toughened up.” The concept of “grit” is troubling to me at times, because too often we see “boot-strapping” types trying to artificially “toughen up” their kids instead of nurturing their sensitivity, leaving adult-ness for adult-hood. Empathy is vastly undervalued by these individuals, and belies a particularly sinister perspective on humanity. I read recently that J.C. Watts, a Republican congressman and a Rand Paul proxy, said, “people are fundamentally bad.” This is unsurprising given the monotheistic position that morality must extend from an external authority rather than from an intrinsic human condition. I, of course, reject this paternalistic depressive view of humanity that the far right historically espouses, as any honest right politician will tell you: The right believes humans must be saved from themselves, that they are inherently wrong, intrinsically erroneous, devoid of merit and altruism, and that only external forces – God, patriotism, parental authority – will right the ship. I regard this as a particularly craven, myopic, and uninformed position on the state of humanity, relying upon isolated anecdote instead of the state of the literature and the totality of our experiences once controlled for the variables of totalitarianism and local social ill. Parents who seek to engender “hardness” in children fail to understand childhood writ large, and place children in peril through acts of neglect, mistreatment, and harm if not abuse. It is one thing for a child to fall down, experience hurt, and learn that hurts are a part of the human condition, and varying responses to varying types of hurt are important. It is one thing for a child to experience sadness or pain or anger, and be shown the antecedent-consequent relationships when it comes to the way the child reacts to those experiences. It is an entirely different thing to actively seek to create harm, in order to accelerate these natural processes on the altar of getting children to “grow up.” One of the worst hallmarks of chattel mentality directed toward children is attempting to harden them artificially instead of nurturing their child-ness, which is a direct benefit of no longer having to fight bears, club attackers, and live in a state of primordial hypervigilance.
I’d be darned pleased if parents and board presidents alike would stop trying to reintroduce people into the raging wilderness.
Where Sinek hits the nail on the head is in his conclusion, finally eschewing some of the – in my evaluation – falsity he started with, and getting to the real issue: children have changed, and so the adults into which they grew are different than previously. Social structures and corporate structures, however, have not adapted to them. As I write in Insurrection, the preservation of institution at the expense of people is hugely problematic. Sinek is precisely right that the organizational environment is the problem, not the Millennial. When an organization cannot capitalize upon the qualities, talents, and skills of its constituent members, that is a fault of the organization, not said membership.
I am infuriated by Sinek’s proposition that Millennials engaging in social media is analogous to alcoholics drinking, and am flabbergasted by his egregiously inaccurate representation of alcoholism in this context. Clearly, Sinek doesn’t know much about this topic, and not only does a terrible injustice to the benefits many Millennials have gained from integration into wider networks through technology, but goes a terrible injustice to mental illness, addiction, and alcoholism. I cannot abide it without comment: Alcoholism is a disease, and alcoholics do not choose to have that disease. Addictions are not at all the same as habits or trends, and I find the suggestion that giving kids access to social media to be tantamount to giving kids alcohol or cigarettes deeply irresponsible. There are no benefits to abusing alcohol. There are no benefits to cigarette smoking. None. There are no redeeming qualities to cigarette smoking. Cigarettes in particular are the result of corporate collusion to maximize profit while destroying the health of consumers. One can make the argument that there are technologies that seek to maximize profit without regard to health, but one cannot rightly, seriously, or academically indict the whole of social networking as being as intentional or destructive as cigarette smoking.
Devices do not create dopamine kicks. Behaviors tied to antecedent-consequent extrinsic motivators do, and that motivation will have varying effects on varying individuals. To say “an iPad is as addictive as alcohol” is to fundamentally misunderstand technology, addition, neurobiology, psychology, and human behavior. It’s not a semantic sleight-of-hand or interesting quirky anecdote to make such a statement; it’s dangerous, inaccurate, ascientific hokum. That kind of gross, unsophisticated, sweeping oversimplification is dangerously simpleminded and is part of the Luddite-like false narrative that the wholesale elimination of technology is good for kids and adults. Sinek himself scuttles his argument by jibing about posting a picture of his food on Instagram: clearly he knows that one can have innocuous if not prosocial interactions in the social media realm, and to suggest to the contrary is not only observably false, but in my experience and professional assessment as an educational technologist, potentially destructive to the countless number of people who have found ways to supplement executive function and organizational deficits through technology.
Moreover, it’s troubling to me that Sinek seems to believe that anybody who drinks a lot is “an alcoholic.” There are a variety of permutations of alcohol abuse, from bingeing to compulsive drinking to social habit to addictive personality behaviors to, yes, alcoholism, but the etiology of the behavior differs in each of those instances. This is one of the things that frosts my cupcakes about those who foray into making declarations about groups of people without a more robust social science, pedagogical, or research background than the average layperson brings to the table: Sinek hasn’t controlled for all variables, but is levying proclamations at and about an entire generation of young people. I find that disappointing and not especially thoughtful.
There is a profound benefit to integrating people of diverse and disparate cultures and experiences through social media, and just because Sinek cannot seem to capitalize upon these advantages and strike better balances does not mean the wholesale elimination of technologies is wise or warranted. Indeed, removing technology from my work in any situation – one on one, small group, large group, or otherwise – will impede my ability to complete tasks and respond effectively as a collaborator and leader. My memory is not what it should be, and my ability to lose track of time at the drop of a hat is legendary. I will go down a rabbit hole for hours if I do not create a structure for myself, in the way that works for me, to ensure that I fulfill my obligations and strike a better work-life balance than I would be capable of otherwise. To deny me my technology is to disable my ability to be my best, and it is no one’s right to deny me that identity or agency. While certainly this is inclusive of balance and some people have more difficulty with balance, again, to make blanket statements about 80 Million people in such generalized, disparaging ways strikes me as deeply irresponsible.
Social media in the hands of Millennials saves young queer lives, reveals truths about law enforcement and our government, empowers people of color who organize and expose historic structural violence in ways never before seen in this country, unites families and friends across distances untraversed in the history of our species with rapidity unknown before our time, and can be a powerful force for good in individual lives and for people collectively. Social media in the hands of Millennials is changing global sociopolitical history by affording outlets and voices to those who would otherwise be ignored, silenced, and erased. Sinek utterly fails to acknowledge the prosocial goods and benefits that can come from the healthful, balanced use of technology to meaningfully enhance lives, and while it is a common overbroad charge levied against technology generally and Millennials specifically, the ubiquity of this argument does not make it compelling. This is a tired narrative, no matter how it is presented by a well-spoken person on a stage.
Sinek’s disparaging of Millennials and their social media in such an overbroad way amounts to an ornery codger shouting “get off my lawn.”
There is an obvious – or what should be obvious – difference between all members of a generation and certain members of a generation. It is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy to say “some Millennials in X situation or with Y technology exhibit addictive behaviors, therefore all Millennials exhibit addictive behaviors.” One doesn’t have to bother researching a counterpoint to his supposition that Millennials are addicted to social media, as it is unsubstantiated, devoid of empirical evidence as well as failing even a basic logical test.
I think Sinek thinks he’s cute in some of these statements, but there are a great many people who are going to use this widely-shared video as justification for disparaging, belittling, and limiting Millennials, and I cannot abide this kind of insult hurled at the feet of so many of the most talented, empathetic, creative, diligent, insightful, intelligent, and impressive young people I’ve ever met. As an educational technologist, I cannot abide the generalized negativity Sinek hurls at technology and collaborative platforms, as we in this field know from decades of experience across generations that there is genuine power and good to be found in the thoughtful, intentional, well-designed and integrated use of these technologies. If he had said that he advocated for more balance and stopped there, this would have been a different matter, but Sinek’s position throughout entire portions the video is that Millennials need to put their technology down.
No, they don’t. Detractors of Millennials need to do a great deal more listening and far less insulting, lest the lawn-protecting fuddy-duddies of my generation – which happens to be Sinek’s generation, too – create further disenfranchisement and disillusion for a generation we’ve already treated poorly.
We’ve managed to foul up their economy, their housing prospects, their educational funding, their credit, their air, their water, their food supply, their news media, their infrastructure, their education system, their government, their representation, their marketplace, and in far, far, far too many instances, their health, their safety, their bodies, their families, and worse. For every whine, lament, and complaint about Millennials, I would like to see people of my generation and the one that came before mine be accountable for the decisions they made that tossed away a safer, better, more prosperous world for Millennials, causing them to be the first generation in the history of our species to inherit a situation worse off than the one that came before.
Another variable for which Sinek fails to control in his extemporaneous diatribe is the artificiality of the nuclear family construct of the mid-Twentieth Century. The extended associations, personal interactions, mentoring, and support that Sinek (rightly) describes as important used to be provided by a wider, less centralized extended family network, a condition in which we lived for thousands upon thousands of years before America, as an example, isolated families into “mom-dad-kids in fenced-in-yard.” This is a complex development with a huge number of factors involved, and it is improper to suggest that it is the fault of Millennials that they are relying upon a new, technology-integrated if not technology-rooted way of relating interpersonally. The world has changed, and lamenting it as “all for the worse” is beyond conservative; it’s a Luddite mentality.
Sinek also seems to suggest that it’s a “bad thing” that Millennials want to see immediate changes at a large scale. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with saying, if we can make this happen fully or more quickly, we can do more and do better for more people?
I share the impatience of Millennials in my work – public school revolution – because the historic incrementalism of many of the great voices of reform, like Diane Ravitch, will have us creep toward betterness while children languish in suffering situations. By contrast, I believe that a wholesale shift – revolution, not reform – is precisely the kind of fruitful disruption we need to make things better for the most kids, most quickly. It is precisely the innovative, creative, impatient mindset of Millennials that refutes Sinek’s “it takes a long time to climb a mountain” analogy. Millennials want to know if we can implement a ski lift, or get a helicopter, or maybe tear the mountain down if it doesn’t need to be there. While I recognize he’s making a point through illustration, so am I: It is not a foregone conclusion that the way mountains have been scaled in the past is the way they will be in the future, or in the immediate situation right in front of any given Millennial. In fact, their abilities to innovate, create, and disrupt are among their best characteristics, and I think we do a grave injustice to them and a grave disservice to ourselves to ask them to slow down when they may well have a proverbial rocket pack at their disposal if we empower them instead of seek to correct them.
The inherent dissatisfaction of Millennials stems from any variety of factors, but it is not a vice. It is, in my estimation, a tremendous virtue that the generation at hand is unwilling to tolerate the extant without justification, that it questions constantly, and that it is, by comparison, impatient with older things and older people. Systems and structures that deny Millennials (or post-Millennials or children) individual agency and identity deserve to be questioned and decimated and reconstructed, and if we heed the virtuous impatience of this generation, they will show us better, positively-disruptive alternatives to extant traditional methods that we may be incapable of seeing or generating ourselves.
The world belongs to the next generation, and the “real world” changes for the better because of those who make it, not because of those who try to keep it the same. Sinek is right that the traditional corporate environment doesn’t work, just as I’m certain I’m right that the traditional scholastic environment doesn’t work. But the solution is not to demand that the very technologies that liberate and empower and enhance the lives of incoming generations be stifled or eliminated; it is a far better use of our energy to adapt ourselves to the new realities of powerful innovative thinkers like the Millennials.
I. Katherine Benziger outlined Carl Jung’s falsification of type phenomenon, in which the brain experiences stress – and therefore, the body experiences stress – when it is forced to operate in a modality that differs from its developed preferences. For someone like me, being forced to sit in a lecture hall, facing the same way, silently and still, for a protracted period of time while I am talked at is a sure-fire way to raise my anxiety and frustration levels. To demand that I comply with this modality because it’s “the real world” is not only counterproductive – I’m not going to learn this way no matter how much you wish it were so – but it’s also inhumane, especially in the case of doing this to a child, and virtually ensures an ineffective learning situation. It is not the fault of the learner when a false or improper modality is forced upon that learner, and we do that all the time in schools, institutions, and corporations in America. We insist that people “do what they’re told” and “do what they have to do” because “this is the real world.”
If our capacity for design and organization is so limited that we cannot even conceive adjustments to extant structures, let alone wholesale reinvention, we have no one to blame but ourselves for our failures, and certainly ought not blame people who will consistently and clearly tell us that what we’re doing doesn’t work for them. Of course students in schools will be depressed if you force them to do something that doesn’t work for them in the slightest. Of course students will feel isolated and frustrated and hurt if they are clobbered into corners when they use platforms and resources that are met with withering disapproval by authority figures. It seems to logically follow that the more we demonize things that come naturally to Millennials instead of seeking to understand and prosocially integrate them, the worse off we’ll make the problems we see.
When Sinek says that the worst outcome is suicide, he’s right, and failing to conceive an individual, that individual’s needs, and to empower that individual with authenticity, agency, and identity is a sure fire way to make things worse for any individual, especially if predisposed to depression. When Sinek says that the “best” outcome is blasé mediocrity, I say, absolutely not. That’s the best you can hope for in the system as it exists, when that system utterly fails to account for the individual Millennial and that individual’s needs, preferences, and uniqueness. The solution is not to change the Millennial: The genie is out of the bottle. The world has changed. Our kids are growing up digital natives, to use the outmoded term, and there’s no going back, nor should we want to. Let’s go forward with the best aspects of an integrated world and redesign systems to account for those new realities.
It is absurd to say “put your technology away” then ask a student a question that involves precise figures, names, or dates. The sum total of human knowledge is online, and we’re going to pretend it doesn’t exist? The same absurdity exists in any corporate environment: Why would you not want access to a massive repository of data when making decisions? Kenneth Matos of the Families and Work institute suggests that Boomers and Gen X-ers would be far better off looking at their own resistances to change, rather than pointing a finger at Millennials, and I concur with that assessment.
The little anecdote that Sinek gives at the end of his quasi-sermon underscores his bias against those who don’t use technology and who don’t relate the same way he does. He says that “the way” that “we” develop relationships is through personal inquiry and verbal relationships. Again, he makes massive assumptions. Some people are deeply put-off by being inquired about in their personal lives when relating in, say, a corporate environment. Some people are not at all comfortable having a personal conversation verbally in that fashion, and are able to be far more interpersonal using, for example, a technological method. I do not say that everyone can do this or that nobody prefers the former, but that’s my point: saying “this is how a person should be” is almost invariably an overreach. Homogenization grossly oversimplifies complex individuals in complex relationships, and promotes misperception and misconception, yielding no improvement in the situations Sinek laments. Ascribing blame to technology and its use, associated with age or not, is to conflate an object and a behavior. Telling people to liberate themselves from their technologies implies they are enslaving in the first place, which is a values and judgement position, not a position rooted in evidence, and most certainly implies that all people relate to, with, and through technology in the same way, which I believe is patently absurd and observably inaccurate.
If Sinek’s concern is prosocial relationships, he should focus on those, instead of the mechanisms and modalities of those relationships, lest he miss his own point entirely.
It is intellectually lazy to grossly overgeneralize a generation based on a trend, and to make assumptions and logical leaps like those present throughout the video. If there’s anything “lazy” associated with the Millennial generation, it’s previous generations’ unwillingness and incapability around changing ourselves and what we do to adapt for the better, and Millennials can show us how to do that if we listen. That said, we better get at it quickly, because their impatience is a virtue, and Millennials wait for no Boomer.
In the end, Sinek’s overarching point – that balance is important – is well taken, but I challenge you not to take his video as a “hell yeah” reinforcement of your preconceptions about Millennials. They are a remarkable, diverse, powerful generation that is poised to do what our generations could not, and reverse poor trends and improve the world in profound ways, quickly, if they are given the chance. I count myself fortunate to teach the Millennial and Gen-Z generations, and look forward to seeing them do the remarkable things they surely will, and will join them in lamenting those individuals and institutions who stood in their way instead of empowering them.
I admit freely that I am biased, as someone who wants to work with them instead of against them, and wants them to do what they want, not what I want, but I am ultimately unconvinced by the tired “laziness” narrative, when I see empirical and observable evidence everywhere I look that Millennials are remarkable as a generation. I hope you’ll take pause before indicting any person because of their age, and instead take the appropriate opportunity every person deserves: get to know an individual, as an individual, for who they authentically are. We all have strengths and deficits, and just because the Millennials are different than us doesn’t mean we’re better.
It’s high time for Generation X and the Boomers to get off their high horses. The world doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to the future generations.
Beaton, C. (2016). Never Good Enough: Why Millennials Are Obsessed With Self-Improvement. Forbes.
Bergman, S., Fearrington, M., Davenport, S., and Bergman, J. (2010). Millennials, narcissism, and social networking: What narcissists do on social networking sites and why. Personality and Individual Differences.
Howe, N. and Strauss, R. (1999). Millennials rising: the next great generation. Vintage Books: New York, NY.
De Hauw, S. and DeVos, A. (2010). Millennials’ Career Perspective and Psychological Contract Expectations: Does the Recession Lead to Lowered Expectations? Journal of Business and Psychology.
King, D. (2016). Millennials, Faith and Philanthropy: Who Will be Transformed? Bridge/Work.
Kowske, B., Rasch, R., and Wiley, J. (2010). Millennials’ (Lack of) Attitude Problem: An Empirical Examination of Generational Effects on Work Attitudes. Journal of Business and Psychology.
Tahmincioglu, E. (2015). Millennials Flexible-Work Desires? Ask Boomers.
I’m of the fervent conviction that the greatest peril facing American public education today is pedagogical conservatism, and that conservatism is fostered directly by the tradition of the school institution.
My classroom practices as well as my administrative philosophy are rooted deeply in metapedagogy, as it is with any radical pedagogue. We say that wildness is a desirable characteristic of the learner, and that we must disenthrall ourselves from the formalized, paternal (often patriarchal) niceness and cleanliness of traditional institutionalized schooling. The aware (read: “woke”) reader will recognize that there is nothing nice or clean about the intellectual abbatoir of the modern school, and that it is not only ourselves that we must free but our children, both actively for those already caught in the grinder and proactively for those not yet quashed in their humanity by the autocratic nature of the traditional classroom.
The contemporary school is modeled upon three major social institutions: the prison, the factory, and the church. Destroying these edifices that are imposed like coffer dams around learning is essential to liberating the child mind and, therefore, learning writ large. They are mutually-incompatible with genuine learning, with pedagogy, and with children. The murder of the genuine child is more than a result of but a direct goal of the system.
This may seem a damning indictment, but one need only BEGIN to question the most basic structures of the institution to recognize their fallacy.
Why do we start school in September and end in late June? Why do we begin the school day at 7:30 AM? Why do we use ABCDF grading? Why do we name Valedictorians? Why do aspiring politicians often run for School Board first? Why do we block YouTube? Why do Scantrons exist? Who is Pearson?
If you take any meaningful time at all to truly explore these questions, you will immediately place your hand upon one of the aforementioned coffer dams of institutionalized factory-prison-church schooling, like so much reaching the edge of the holodeck on the starship Enterprise and realizing that the fantasy is false and there’s a powerful illusory machine right in front of us for the touching and, if we choose, the deactivating.
Experienced and highly successful educator Sheri Lederman has prevailed at trial in her suit against the New York State Department of Education, with the presiding judge slamming the system in his remarks. The so-called “Value Added Model” (or “VAM”) is a model championed by John King, now the successor to Arne Duncan as the head of the U.S. Department of Education.
This is a victory for great teachers everywhere – especially in harassed New York, where I first taught – and a setback for the corporatizers and faux-reformers who tout convoluted systems that empower the standardized testing commercial complex instead of focusing on what matters.
Proper teacher evaluation is hard, but it’s not solved by implementing a convoluted mathematical formula. That doesn’t solve anything in and of itself. Mathematics is a phenomenal tool for understanding the world, and I’m not saying a mathematician couldn’t create a meaningful formula, but teacher evaluation, at its heart – as with anything involving teaching and learning – is a craft that requires significant observation and human interaction that is better left to better methods.
Observation, interaction, and narrative are powerful analytical tools, and they seem utterly left behind by most models. You simply CANNOT evaluate a teacher based on standardized test scores. NOT AT ALL. Not a little. Not ever. NOT AT ALL. It is a fallacious standard because the data itself is fallacious: A single integer numeric value does not tell you about a child’s skill mastery, and cannot, therefore, be reliably used for ANY educational decision. This is what the USDOE and every administration in my teaching career – Bush II and Obama, both – have absolutely and totally failed to understand.
Teacher evaluation requires significant analysis of observational, qualitative, and in some cases nonquantifiable data sets, and that means better quality pedagogy, better quality administrative professional development, and ensuring principals and assistant principals are instructional experts first and foremost, then equipping them with the time and resources to spend the vast majority of their times amid the teaching for which they are responsible.
You can’t do that sitting behind your desk on your butt, folks, and that’s where USDOE policies keep pushing people because the standardized testing commercial complex is about production, numbers, and charts, not about teaching, learning, performance, authenticity, and individualized creation and application.
Yorktown Sentry Staff reporter Kyle Mayo-Blake authored an op ed in February 2016, asking the rhetorical question, “Can men be feminists?”
I realize that simple one-word answers aren’t the rage in the presidential election season – as was exemplified last night at the Democratic debate in which “yes” and “no” seemed to be the only words unused in some of the more sprawling answers – but it’s self-evident that men can be feminists. I think the more pressing question is why aren’t more men feminists? In reading the extraordinary work “Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive” by Julia Serrano, I was challenged more than ever to recognize that all oppression must be challenged, and excluding those who seek to fight institutional and structural violence must not be discounted, but included, in their efforts to do so. Indeed, I fear that those who say “no, one cannot be a fighter of oppression on behalf of a targeted class” (I use “class” here in the legal meaning) “unless one is a member of said class” are ostracizing allies and compromising their own pursuits.
For example, many of the key leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in America were also key leaders of the abolitionist cause. It is not entirely inaccurate to say that the tree of women’s rights has its roots in fighting racism. So, too, can one see the roots of the LGBTQI+ crusade for equality in many feminist causes. Consequently, as a person charged with protecting and empowering every individual child, regardless of where they fall on the continuua of traits and characteristics, including gender and ethnicity, I feel a deep “need” to actively oppose structural violence in all its forms.
We teachers have a moral obligation, an ethical imperative, and a professional responsibility to perceive, respect, and love every child. It is our prime directive: Children and their learning come first, in all things, now and forever, without exception.
Consequently, I believe I have a responsibility to be a feminist.
At the most altruistic level, I believe that all human beings are, indeed, entitled to dignity, respect, identity, safety, and the meeting of their human needs.
For me, as a fierce advocate for gender equality, I can’t help but raise gender as an issue to begin with: Gender is not a binary condition, nor has it ever been in the entire history of our species, which spans up to 200,000 years, depending on where you want to make the distinction. (As the dear, late Christopher Hitchens put it, “give or take.”) The commonly-touted statistic for genitally-atypical gender births is roughly 1 in every 2000 people. Put over-simply, if you have a school district of 20,000 kids, you could expect 10 of those children to have an anatomy that would not conform to the (also-oversimplified) idea of binary gender. However, the Intersex Society of North America rightly points out that it’s more like 1 in 100 people who do not, in one form or another, fit into binary gender definitions. So when it comes to discrimination on the basis of gender, I cannot help but object to binary gender as a starting point.
However, it takes the merest glancing at the history of our species to know that the feminine, and specifically women, have been systematically mistreated for nearly the entirety of that history. This, to me, is also self-evident: Women have historically been denied rights by men strictly on the basis of their gender, perceived or otherwise. While I, as a cisgender male, may not personally mistreat women, I do feel a responsibility to be aware of the historic structural violence my gender “class” has perpetrated against women, and to be keenly aware of the small-scale transgressions of which I might be inadvertently guilty because of the socializing aspect of growing up male. In that respect, I do indeed think of myself as a “feminist.”
At the most personal level, to drill down as far as I can, I want to support others having the same rights I believe I should have. Being queer gives a person additional experiential insight into being denied rights, and that compels me, personally, to fight for others’. I’m aware (because of the thoughts outlined in the previous paragraph) that I have a form of privilege as a male in a patriarchal society, and that I have a responsibility not to participate in the oppression and structural, institutional violence of that patriarchy. I go so far as to say I have a responsibility to oppose the patriarchy, because 1. there is no such thing as binary gender which ruins the whole “I Am Man” phenomenon as the lie that it is, 2. no human should be empowered over another on the basis of gender, and 3. there is a practical impact of misogynism that harms me, the people around me, and the entirety of my species.
How blithe must a person be as to think the way things are today are “just fine?” How obtuse must a person be to think that there is no need to counter institutionalized, societal harm done to classes of people strictly on the basis of being a member of that class? What’s the alternative? Accept it?
I refuse. I refuse to accept the patriarchy, or any other institution, tacit or explicit, that gives one group of humans the power to control another group of humans. I consider it anti-freedom, inhumane, and deeply inconsistent with our natural state of humanity.
Until such time as a group of humans who have suffered historic discrimination, objectification, violence (structural, institutional, political, physical, mental, emotional), and oppression because they are members of that group, have been empowered out of being so mistreated, we all have a common human interest in working to make things better. We also have a personal ethical imperative not to participate in those activities and to fight them when we see them.
So yes, not only can men be feminists, but we have a responsibility to be. Now, I recognize the perspective of those (and there are many) who say that men cannot remove themselves from privilege in the patriarchy, and therefore cannot be feminists, but at best allies of a pro-feminist, anti-sexist nature. I accept this, and just as I believe my queerness and my identity is mine to define, so a woman’s womanness and feminism is hers to define, and I would not dare correct a woman who said, “You cannot be a feminist.” If those feminists choose to label me, for these entirely righteous and valid reasons, as a pro-feminist ally if not a feminist, I accept the nomenclature and distinction as a member of the aforementioned privileged class. (No matter how much I may choose to eschew that privilege and steadfastly refuse to participate in patriarchal structural violence.)
However, for purposes of making it clear, I say “I am a feminist” in this context today because wherever there is feminism, I am an ally and a fellow fighter, and I cannot conceive a valid reason why I should not be so. I have a professional responsibility, as well as a moral obligation and ethical imperative, to fight for the causes of women in every way I can, just as I have a responsibility to fight for the cause of any oppressed class.
As Christopher Hitchens said in 2010, with his usual cheek, “We all know there is a cure for poverty. It’s a rudimentary one; it works everywhere, though. It works everywhere for the same reason. It’s colloquially called the empowerment of women. It’s the only thing that does work. If you allow women some control over their cycle of reproduction, so that they’re not chained by their husbands or by village custom to annual animal-type pregnancies, early death, disease, and so on… if you would free them from that, give them some basic health of that sort, and if you are generous enough to throw in a handful of seeds and a bit of credit, the whole floor – culturally, socially, medically, economically – of that village will rise.”
Regardless of the nomenclature, we have a deep responsibility, as men, to fight to right the wrongs we, as a class, have wrought upon women and the feminine throughout the history of our species. I call that feminism, even if you don’t, but however you term it, men must active empower women and the feminine in both theory and in praxis.
Patriarchy, as with all forms of oppressive control and coercion, is destructive to women specifically, and to our species as a whole.