Generation Cynical

How often do you hear people, especially teachers, say that the youth of today is not what it used to be, that they are lacking in intelligence, interest, motivation, anything really. “It wasn’t like this when I was young!”, “It’s so different now!”, “Oh, today’s kids…!” I often disagree with any of these assumptions, just on principle because I never think kids are dumb or worthless, but our hope and future, so it’s up to us to show them the way and not to complain about them all the time. Besides that, I think that most talk about how things were different in the past is nonsense because history rather repeats itself than to change, and while I think that some things have evolved for the worse, I disagree with most of the aspects that people talk about normally. Changes in modern generations are also not necessarily bad and rarely intentional, and often reflect what they learn in our society. Why am I saying all of this? In a recent lesson, I had the strong feeling that the kids were much different than I was at that age and I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s true and if it is, why?

In 8th grade I read a short story by Wolfgang Borchert called “Nachts schlafen die Ratten doch” (But the Rats Sleep at Night), a classic for German classes. In it, a man in a bombed German city during WWII finds a boy sitting all alone in the rubble. It turns out he is guarding his dead brother from being eaten by rats, so the man convinces the boy that he can leave him alone, to get home. It’s a nice story about good people in dark times, about facing death, about holding together when everyone is suffering. Or is it? I remember reading this story in 8th or 9th grade myself and being touched by the little boy taking care of his dead brother and also by the way the man tries to convince him to come with him. But when I read the story with one of my two classes, the reaction was unanimous: it’s the story about a pedophile trying to abuse the naivety of the young boy. And when I say unanimous, I mean it. I could not really convince the kids that the man is not planning something sinister, but is just trying to help. They could not believe that anyone would do that, just out of good will. Not only that it didn’t even cross their mind, even after I pointed out the circumstances and the clues in the story, they wouldn’t really believe me. Granted, the story does depict the man a little sinister in the beginning, to make it harder for the boy to be convinced (you know, for suspense), but it soon becomes very clear what his intentions are. But they wouldn’t go for it. Those 13- to 14-year-old kids couldn’t stop talking about pedophiles, being kidnapped or killed straightaway by some stranger (it went as far as the kid being used a slave or child soldier). I asked them if they couldn’t imagine that in war times, people would look out for each other, and they denied it, believing that people would be even more hostile and selfish than normal.

The other class (same year) I read the story with reacted very differently. They said that in the beginning they thought the man had dubious intentions, but that later on they assumed he just wanted to help. I didn’t have to convince them, really, of the man’s intention. What they did, though, was to question the logic of the story in all its small details, not willing to believe the story’s plot. Which is not the same cynicism as the other class, but still. Cynicism? Yes, what shocked me the most about the class’s reaction is how cynical those young teenagers are. They don’t want to believe anything good or true, they just don’t. They laugh off any notion of seriousness or good will. In another lesson, the question was if you’d stood up for your friend even if it meant, your teacher won’t like you anymore. Out of thirty kids, about three said they would still stick to their friend. All the others thought it wouldn’t be worth it if they lost their good standing with their teacher.

How do we teach them to be so cynical? By telling them more and more that they should be careful with strangers? But kids have been told that for decades, so that alone can’t be it (that was the explanation the students offered themselves). Maybe they learned from watching the world around them, a world in which greed and materialism rule more than ever before. They see people on TV doing anything to become famous or rich, not people who try to do something good. They watch YouTube to be entertained by people’s accidents or stupidity and rarely because they’re inspiring. They see their parents fight and divorce more and more, getting used to the fact that people aren’t trying to get along but to drift apart, often for selfish reasons. They see a society that increasingly asks them to follow instructions, to not think or question, to get a job and be done with it. Maybe that is what bothers me so much about the yammering about “the kids today.” Our culture deteriorates more and more, causing our children to react to it. They are scared, they grow numb, they laugh it off, just to not let it get to their hearts. And we blame them. But they are just the mirrors that show us how fucked up things become and instead of taking by their hands to try to change something, we roll our eyes. It makes me sad that my students find the idea of a good person ridiculous, that they rather want to protect themselves than a friend, or, even worse, that they care more about their grades than about friendship. That’s a shame. But it’s our shame, not theirs. We can’t blame them; they have to deal with enough already. We have to help them get out of it, even if it’s not easy, because we’re stuck in there ourselves.

The kids today are no less intelligent or motivated, but I feel they grow more numb. But it’s possible to shake them up and to try to open their eyes, to show them that despite their belief this world could still be different. We can’t allow ourselves to complain even for a second, if we don’t try to give them hope, if we don’t show them that it’s up to everyone, if we don’t change and show them change is possible.


All you good good people listen to me You're just about done with the way that you feel Cause nothing rings home enough to dig your heels in You don't have to leave me to see what I mean Lose all your fears, they are keeping you down You won't have to fake it, while I'm around - Embrace, All You Good Good People (1997)

Sich gehen lassen in Liebe und Angst. Das was man hat, verschenken. Vom Versuch das mit Würde zu schaffen. "Für immer die Menschen" - Tomte, Für immer die Menschen (2003)