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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

MTSU prof: The kids are all right

According to researchers involved with the latest results in the annual Narcissistic Personality Inventory (link leads to PDF with detailed info), which has published an assessment of college students' sense of self since 1982, today's college students are more self-centered than their predecessors. The experts blame a "self-esteem trend" that began in the 1980s and technology innovations such as MySpace and YouTube.

Maybe they're right, but I wonder how people of all ages would fare on such a study these days. If we are becoming more self-centered--and there's plenty of evidence to support the theory--I wonder whether it has less to do with being in college and more to do with being a 21st-century American. I have a feeling that college students from the 60s, 70s or 80s would answer the survey similiarly if they were exposed to today's me-focused pop culture.

The Tennessean didn't post this Associated Press story online, but it did run it on today's front page and included an interview with MTSU vice president of student affairs Bob Glenn, who has worked on campus for 36 years. He disputes the findings:

"Everybody wants to make out this generation as worse than previous generations ... I don't see this particular group of students as much more narcissistic than those in the 60s, who were engaged in a whole variety of interesting behaviors ... I see a surge in a lot of things that are optimistic ... I see them doing a lot more service activities. I see these students being much more inclined in doing things that have positive impacts on their communities. I don't want to be too quick to label them and hesitate to write them off because of what one group of researchers said."
I'm sure this study is worth noting, but I'm also weighing it with a grain of salt. Why? I remember very well the outcry over my own "Generation X" in the early 90s: We were slackers who were apathetic about everything, and we were going to ruin America. Well, at least that was the most exaggerated of the criticisms leveled against my generation, and in my opinion they've turned out to be wrong.

It seems to me that generations in American society tend to have a natural rivalry that evolves over time, and it's a common pastime for older ones to call out rising successors for their ills. Sure, my generation has its shortcomings, and so do the Boomers and even the Greatest Generation.

There may well be some validity to the study, but I think we'd all be better off looking at how we can change ourselves for the better than trying to nudge our older or younger peers a little further down the generational hill.

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