Society encourages us to live quickly. We consume media by scrolling, expect wifi everywhere we go, even order groceries online so they can be delivered to our cars in the name of efficiency. We operate under this misguided belief that faster is better, and yet feel an ache for connection that previous generations embraced in their slowness. As Generation Z comes to age in front of our eyes, we must think critically about young people’s ability to connect with each other and how Proctor can nurture in these adolescents a love for learning, for experiencing, for risking failure, for persevering, and for each other.
Inside HigherEd published this article in March outlining the challenges a stereotypical Generation Z presents to colleges; the belief that this group of young people “can’t live without their digital devices, are hooked on digital entertainment and social media, are entitled, self-absorbed narcissists and overly delicate, fragile flowers.” We have a slightly less pessimistic view of our population of students at Proctor, and we wrestle with how much of this generation’s struggle is due to our own unwillingness, collectively, to engage in real relationships with adolescents today. We have allowed our teens (and ourselves) to get sucked into the vortex of social media. We mindlessly spend hours each day on our phones, judging ourselves and our own existence against the curated lives of others. We have this feeling deep inside that while things are “good”, we should be experiencing better.
Nearly a century ago, the Lost Generation wrestled with many of the same issues: endless possibilities and unprecedented affluence in the Roaring 20s. Yet a deep emptiness persisted. We’ve read Fitzgerald, Stein, T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. The themes resonate, the helplessness, the shallow optimism of the characters reminds us of our friends and neighbors. What can we learn from generations past who similarly felt something was missing in the midst of having everything?
Every generation has issues, gets a bad rap from older generations because no one can fully understand the challenges youth must navigate unless you are a youth at that time. Regardless of what generation we are looking to educate, repeatedly our answer has been the same: connection. Connection among adolescents today does not happen by chance. It happens through shared, untethered experiences like Wilderness Orientation and Off-Campus programs. It happens in small advisory groups. It happens in dorms during late night conversations between roommates. It happens in classrooms where teachers are focused far more on doing to learn than learning to do. It happens in schools where parents and teachers are teammates paddling toward the same destination. It happens where we limit technology use and encourage face to face conversations.
Our path to connection for our kids is imperfect; we haven’t nailed how to monitor our students’ technology use without compromising the trust we seek to build with them. Not every student will choose to study off-campus or voluntarily take part in a tech-free campout. We will have students (and faculty) who succumb to the temptation of their phone during assembly, and we certainly cannot mandate pillow-talk among roommates or force parents to sign a “good teammate” agreement prior to their child’s arrival on campus. We will never legislate our way to connection with our kids, but we can work tirelessly to show our students and parents the possibility of connection that lives in every corner of Proctor’s campus. We can create space to simply be, and in that ‘being’ we hope to rediscover the deep connection that comes through living in relationship with each other.