Every spiritual tradition has warned us that money, power, and prestige provide only transient satisfaction and the temporary elation they provide invariably fades, leaving us once again discontent and in hot pursuit of the next deluded hope for enduring fulfillment. If spiritual sources are not convincing enough, scientific studies on happiness now confirm this perennial wisdom.
The college admission scandal is not just about corruption and the lengths some morally repugnant parents will go to assure that their super-entitled children will remain privileged the rest of their lives. It’s a symptom of a broader spiritual crisis whose most tragic victims may be the current cohort of youngsters making their way through America’s school systems.
I don’t have kids, but everything I’ve seen and heard—from relatives and friends, from troubled parents and grandparents, from concerned psychotherapists and pediatricians—indicates that today’s students are given so much homework that it is more like cruel and unusual punishment than a learning opportunity; that they are subjected to an insane level of pressure to excel academically and rack up credentials that look good on college applications; that they have to contemplate big decisions about the future at absurdly young ages; and are made to feel that their lives will be ruined if they don’t hit all the marks en route to the right college, the perfect resume, and success in a prestigious career. All of this is reflected in data showing that an extraordinary amount of medication is being prescribed for the alarming number of kids with anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.
What are those kids being taught about how to live a fulfilling life? When do they learn that the amount of joy, love, meaning, and contentment they experience in life bears little correlation to social status and net worth? How do they learn that the most rewarding activities are not transactional? Who tells them, convincingly, that many kids are better off going to a humble state school, or a community college, or skipping higher education altogether, than they would be in a so-called “elite” university? Will they ever be directed inward to the sacred source of happiness within them?
This is just the latest manifestation of a classic American theme, which in turn reflects the central error of the human condition in general: the tendency, driven by a combination of survival instinct and spiritual ignorance, to direct the urge for happiness outward, to sensory pleasures, to sex, to possessions, to money, to prestige, to all the symbols of worldly success. Every spiritual tradition has warned us that these attractions provide only transient satisfaction and the temporary elation they provide invariably fades, leaving us once again discontent and in hot pursuit of the next deluded hope for enduring fulfillment. If spiritual sources are not convincing enough, scientific studies on happiness now confirm this perennial wisdom. Nevertheless, in each generation only a few seem to take the lesson to heart, while most continue to run like hamsters on the wheel that goes nowhere.
The generation that came of age in the Sixties—the period that earned upper case status and modifiers such as “turbulent” and “tumultuous”—became known for seeing through materialistic values and rejecting what was called the rat race. In truth, the counterculture was smaller than the iconic hippie images suggest, but the values embodied by the rebellion were widespread enough to trigger a spiritual revolution of historic significance. And yet, that same generation produced parents whose preschool kids and grandkids audition for elite private schools as if their lives depended on admission, and sleep-deprived, pill-popping adolescents, and college students as obsessed with resume-building as the most ambitious corporate ladder-climber.
It is a distressing situation, but so were the conditions young baby boomers faced more than half a century ago. Which makes one wonder: will there be another youth rebellion? If so, it won’t look anything like the Sixties, and it won’t be nearly as desperate unless a calamitous war like Vietnam breaks out and the draft is reinstated. But all those bright, sensitive, idealistic youngsters out there just might start saying no to all the pressure and reclaim the natural rights of youth: to explore, to daydream, to fill unstructured time in their own unplanned ways, to imagine, to try different ways of being, to have fun, to goof off productively, to fall on their faces and get up, to cherish learning for its own sake, to improvise their way to vital lessons, to ponder the mysteries of existence, to discover who they really are and what makes life worth living.
Maybe the bribery scandal will expose the absurdity and danger of it all and the young generation will spark a new spiritual revolution that builds on the one that started half a century ago. If we’re lucky, they’ll lift themselves—and their elders—to a higher level.