A (Very) Brief Word About the Education Debate

For the last two weeks my social media feeds have burst with punditry on Betsy DeVos. Probably the majority of my feed think her appointment as Secretary of Education is a mistake. The rest wonder aloud when it was that so many people suddenly became education policy wonks overnight. As the conversation around DeVos has continued, however, it seems to have expanded into a more theoretical debate over the merits of public schools, the wisdom of school choice programs, and, least interestingly, Why This Writer’s Personal Narrative Proves Your Political Opinion Is Wrong.

Truthfully, I don’t have a horse in the DeVos debate. I don’t know much about her or the Department she now leads, and I don’t care enough about either topic to learn more. I do though have something more of a perspective on the public school-school choice subjects. Here’s a bullet point summary of what I think:

  • What a person believes about public education in this country is shaped largely by their own personal experience and the experiences of those close to them. That’s OK. It’s OK to have your opinion formed by experience. As far as I’m concerned with education, results matter more than ideology. The effects the rules have on people is absolutely part of the conversation.
  • That being said, a person’s personal experience is personal, which means it describes what happened to them and not necessarily what happens/has happened/will happen to others. Being able to draw knowledge and perspective from one’s own experience without making that experience the sole basis of how one understands the world is a mark of intellectual maturity. Intellectual maturity, alas, is not social media’s strong point.
  • Those who have a more sympathetic perspective toward American public schools should not behave as if public education is really ever on the line here. Public schools will never disappear from this country. No serious person wants that to happen or is working toward it. Construing criticism of the current system as a wholesale assault on the ideal of public education is hysteria, not serious thinking.
  • It seems to me that those who resist school choice programs often misunderstand where the other side is coming from. I’ve seen a lot of friends on social media belittle homeschooling and private schooling families for “white flight,” for not caring about poorer students or inner city students. What I haven’t seen yet is an honest explanation from an anti-school choice evangelical of why Christian families who send their children to public school should not be concerned about the upcoming Supreme Court case concerning school bathrooms and transgendered students. What I haven’t seen yet is a validation of the concerns many parents have about gender ideology in the classroom, or about the dissemination of pornography in school halls. What I haven’t seen yet, in other words, is an evangelical critic of school choice who takes seriously the mistrust that many Christians have toward the public school system. I have to conclude that either A) these evangelicals don’t know how seriously many of their fellow believers take these issues, or B) these evangelicals do know how seriously they take them, but don’t agree that they should take them seriously. Either way, the lack of understanding from school choice critics that I’m seeing is disheartening.
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Do Kids Need Social Media to Succeed?

When you think of the things children need to succeed later in society,  you probably think of things like good education, a stable family life, and lots of love and emotional support. One thing you probably don’t think of? Social media. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a parenting book or a sociological report on childhood well-being that emphasized how important social media and iPhone apps are to a kid’s personal and economic flourishing.

Well, there’s a first time for everything I suppose. 

At The Washington Post, Crystle Martin and Mimi Ito, two researchers out of the University of California at Irvine, present their case that “digital inequity” is a serious social threat to the upward mobility of children from lower-income families. Most of the article is socioeconomic research that comports well with common sense: Wealthier families have more money to spend on things like smartphones and carrier plans, which in turn means kids and teens from those families are statistically more likely to be using the social media platforms on those phones than kids from families with less money in the budget.

Seems pretty logical to me. I’m not entirely sure why extensive academic research is necessary to confirm this, but there you go.

But the raw data alone is not the point of the research. Martin and Ito present the information in order to argue that there is a serious social and economic disadvantage to be suffered from not having access to the same social media platforms as wealthier Americans. “The emerging smartphone divide is troubling,” they write, and it must be addressed:

Teens’ access to Snapchat and Instagram may not seem like something we should be terribly concerned about, but it is an indicator of deeper and troubling forms of digital inequity. Social digital and networked media use is where young people gain everyday fluency and comfort with the technology and social norms of our times. Whether it is managing a LinkedIn network or learning to code, young people who lack digital fluency and full access will always be a step behind their more connected peers.

If you’re not reading carefully, the words “digital fluency” might race past you as you find yourself reluctantly agreeing with the authors’ conclusion. After all, isn’t the computer and the internet both integral parts of our modern economy? Isn’t inability to use email and web browser an obstacle to employment, even in the most non-tech industries?

Well, yes, but that’s not what is being talked about here. Rather, the researches seem to be equating familiarity with smartphone-only applications like Instagram and Snapchat with “fluency.” They apparently believe that the social and economic obstacles that encumber Americans who aren’t good with computers or the internet are also awaiting young children and teens who aren’t able to harness thelatest hardware and applications that their wealthier classmates might be using.

This kind of prognostication faces an obvious problem: How do you ever end up with reliable data when the products are so new and diversifying so quickly?  The research presented in this piece relies heavily ] on projection and a functional equivalence of social media with other digital tech like email. Why accept that equivalence though? Facebook is wildly different, both in form and function, than it was when it launched in 2006. MySpace, once considered the crown jewel of social media, is decrepit, and the much hyped Google+ is almost totally irrelevant to the average American teen. Forecasting what tomorrow’s social media platforms will even be is difficult enough; predicting their economic impact seems like a fool’s errand.

But that’s not this article’s biggest problem. Its biggest problem is its unqualified view of social media as something that automatically enriches a child’s life.

Let’s assume the research’s premise for one moment, and imagine that it really is true that not having an iPhone or Galaxy disadvantages teens in their future economic mobility. The next question should be: So what? Does an economic disadvantage automatically trump any and all other concerns that parents and families might have about allowing teens (and younger) unfettered access to social media?

And there are many such concerns. Of course there are the usual ones:  Sexting is pandemic among American teenagers, and it is well-known at this point that compulsive social media use (and many teens know no other kind of use) can have serious  effects on mental health. But even beyond this, there are worthy questions about why young people need to be trained on social media at all. After all, the astronomical usage rates of “connectors” like Facebook and Twitter are accompanied with the near-universal acknowledgement that our culture–particularly the Millennial culture–is marked by pathological loneliness and personal fragmentation. The stated goal of social media is to connect people with each other. If it is failing in that goal–and our reasons for suspecting it is failing are increasing–then why is it necessary?

Rather than assuming that the latest novelties from Silicon Valley will dictate our children’s futures, we should empower parents and churches, of all income levels, to take a higher stake themselves. How many teenagers spend hours on Twitter, enchanted by the most banal and transitory “Trends,” because they are left to themselves without any inkling of the delights of imagination and wonder, delights that exist right outside their window? Are many of the children I see in restaurants glued to their iPad having their mental and moral faculties shaped by corporations, merely because their parents are too glued to their email and Facebook notifications to notice?

It is one thing to submit that economic flourishing benefits the young. It is altogether reasonable as well to suggest that the youngest generation be trained in the tools of the modern economy. But it is quite another thing to urge parents to hook their children up to the most dehumanizing and trivial portals of diversion, merely out of the fear of having an incomplete resume.

If raising people who are capable of living healthy, rich lives apart from the soft blue glow of digital enchantment means a slightly less thick college application binder, so be it. One’s life, after all, does not consist in the abundance of possessions–or followers.

(featured image credit)

Debunking 3 Myths About Homeschooling

When you hear the word “homeschool,” what do you think? Do you think of underground bunkers filled with fringe evangelical families trying avoid any infecting contact with the outside world? Do you think of rural nightmares where parents stash children in home like pets and feed them anti-government conspiracies?

If you do, you desperately need to read Matthew Hennessey’s exceptional article on the rise of urban homeschooling. It’s a lengthy piece, but worth every second of your attention.

Hennessey’s research into the rise of homeschooling within urban communities is especially helpful in tearing down some noxious myths about homeschooling families. Here are just a few that his piece thoroughly dismantles:

Myth #1: Homeschooling Is Just For Conservative Evangelical Families Wanting a Conservative Evangelical Curriculum. 

Hennessey’s essay makes a powerful case that the current rise in homeschooling, particularly in urban contexts, is not particularly religious. While the booming emergence of the national homeschool movement in the 1980s and 90s did owe much to conservative Christian culture and politics, Hennessey notes that religious reasons are less common for homeschooling families. An excerpt:

 …[T]he homeschooling population has continued to grow dramatically, while also becoming more secular. In 2002, according to a DOE survey, 72 percent of homeschooling families cited “a desire to provide religious instruction” as one of their reasons for educating in the home. By 2012, 64 percent cited religion as a motive for homeschooling; only 16 percent called it most important. “Most people assume we’re doing it for some sort of strange, creationist religious reason,” says Rachel Figueroa-Levin, a homeschooler who lives in Inwood, a middle-class neighborhood at the northernmost tip of Manhattan. “But we are stereotypical secular Jews.” Indeed, concern about “the environment of other schools” has supplanted religion as the Number One reason given for homeschooling, according to the DOE survey. Ninety-one percent of homeschooling parents cited school environment as at least a contributing factor.

As the rest of Hennessey’s piece demonstrates, families are more likely to opt for homeschooling as a response to low quality or insufficient public education than they are merely to provide an explicitly religious curriculum.  This undermines the common criticism that homeschooling families are a feature of struggling public education and not a response to it. Too often public education officials, teachers unions and politicians will claim that fixing schools requires roping in students who are kept out of the system for ideological reasons. But this misrepresents the homeschooling movement entirely.

Myth #2:  Homeschoolers Receive a Poorer Education 

Hennessey pulls some helpful data to make a convincing case that not only are homeschoolers not behind their public school peers, they’re actually leading them. Here’s Hennessy again:

Some critics claim that homeschooled kids won’t be prepared to do college-level work, but available data suggest otherwise. In 2009, NEHRI’s Ray looked at the standardized test results of 12,000 homeschoolers from all 50 states, as well as Guam and Puerto Rico. He found that homeschoolers scored 34–39 percentile points above the norm on the California Achievement Test, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and the Stanford Achievement Test. A recent study published in The Journal of College Admission found that homeschooled students had higher composite ACT scores than their non-homeschooled peers and graduated college at higher rates—66.7 percent, compared with 57.5 percent. “In recent years, we’ve admitted ten or 12 homeschooled students” per year, says Marlyn McGrath, admissions director at Harvard, where each class numbers about 1,600.

Personally, I didn’t need to read this data to know that my homeschooling peers were above the pack academically. I’ve had more public schooled friends than homeschooled ones but I can say with no hesitation that the homeschooling friends I had were more academically achieved in college and, generally speaking, did better in careers right out of school. And it’s not that my publicly educated friends were dimwits; far from it. It’s that the homeschoolers in my social circle weren’t just marginally better at college, they were a lot better. There are just so many resources for homeschooling families nowadays that only the completely uninformed could imagine that a homeschool education is de facto a disadvantage.

Myth #3: Homeschooling Families Need More Government Oversight

Of all the myths about homeschooling, it’s probably easiest for me to empathize with this one. It makes sense on the surface: We have lots and lots of federal standards for education in public schools. Why do homeschooling families deserve special treatment?

The first answer is that the premise behind the myth is wrong. There really isn’t a compelling reason to believe that loads of federal standards on public education do a lot of good. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum or what specific policies you endorse, it’s difficult to ignore letters like this one in The Washington Post , describing a public school teacher’s frustration with the invasive and pedagogically difficult standards.

Secondly, strict oversight of homeschooling families is often at odds with basic civil liberties. The line between trying to help children receive a quality education and violating personal rights is a notoriously fragile one. Listen to this story that Hennessey cites in his piece:

In November, on behalf of homeschooling parents Laura and Jason Hagan, the Home School Legal Defense Association filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against two members of the Nodaway County, Missouri, sheriff’s department. The sheriffs had forced their way into the Hagan residence after being called by a child protective-services caseworker investigating a report that the home was “messy.” The Hagans refused entry to the investigators, so the sheriffs pepper-sprayed them, tasered Jason, and threatened to shoot the family dog—all in full view of the Hagan children. The sheriffs charged the Hagans with resisting arrest and with child endangerment. At trial, however, a judge ruled that the lawmen had violated the Hagans’ Fourth Amendment rights by entering their home without a warrant.

You may think that’s an isolated, outrageous incident. But we’ve already seen an astonishing amount of examples in the past year of enforcing “helicopter parenting,” of legal retribution to families that don’t strictly supervise every minute of their child’s day. In my view, the burden is on critics of homeschooling to give compelling reasons why increased regulations on homeschoolers won’t result in egregious violations of personal and religious liberty. Until that concern is answered in a clear way, aiming additional legislation at homeschoolers is worrisome.

Anyway, you really should read all of Hennessey’s piece. Send it to friends, especially friends dubious of homeschoolers.

How Seriously Should You Take College Students?

I distinctly remember walking into my professor’s office and gently shutting the door. I had some questions for my teacher about some things he had been saying, some other things that I had been reading, and why a lot of what I was learning from the classroom didn’t make sense to me. What the conversation was about I only vaguely recall. What’s still clear to me is the sense of intellectual exploration that I felt, as an older, wiser, and available man whom I admired talked me through the things that weighed on me in that season of life.

That office visit was several years ago. Many of those questions no longer trouble me. Some of the things I thought were so compelling to me at 20 are laughable now, and some things I thought ludicrous or unnecessary I have since built my life on. The professor probably knew it would turn out like that. He listened to me, yes. But he also spoke to me. I was a valuable student in his eyes, but I was not a fellow expert. He took my questions seriously but my answers less so. I know I’m better for it.

“The coddling of the American mind” has had its own news cycle for the past few weeks. Student protests at Yale, Missouri, Princeton, and elsewhere have occupied both headlines and presidents’ offices. Some of the student “uprisings” have published lists of “Demands,” promising continued disruptions if the demands are not immediately and unequivocally met.

Some of these demands are, undoubtedly, more reasonable than others. Some of what is going on the campuses of these schools is probably more grounded in reality and understandable frustrations than what some commentators have granted, as Ross Douthat has pointed out.

But as a whole, the hashtag activism and social media blitzkrieg that we’ve seen in the past three weeks seems to be predicated on a nonsensical and, in fact, dangerous idea: That college students should, at every meaningful turn, be taken quite seriously. Not only is this a misguided and irresponsible notion, it’s actually an acid to the intellectual lives of the very students that it purports to take so seriously.

For most American collegians, higher education begins somewhere between 17 and 20. Many students begin their college career closer to matriculation than to the legal drinking age (one of the more irrelevant laws on campus, I know). For most of America’s university students, college is more than an extension of their education or a prerequisite to their professional life: It is a causeway into independent adulthood.

The university years are not meant to be some sort of final, inarguable designator of maturity and insight. Actually, the opposite is true: The traditional university model is set up to offer its young students a rich field in which intellectual exploration and formation can flourish. Professors do not think of their job as being sparring partners for equally qualified, equally mature thinkers. Rather, professors relish the opportunity to mold intellects and affections, to train students to become the kind of learner and the kind of person that goes on to live a valuable life.

The phenomenon that Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe in their definitive Atlantic piece is dangerous to many things, including free speech, college diversity, and academic freedom. But I would submit that it is most dangerous to the intellectual and spiritual formation of the students who are being coddled and satiated. By empowering 21 year olds to think of the university as a place where their felt needs should and will be treasured, parents and progressive academic administrators are communicating to these students that the most important aspects of their intellectual growth have happened already.

The incidents described in such detail by Haidt and Lukianoff depict a generation of Americans who arrive at American colleges already totally confirmed in the worldview they have developed as teens. Rather than being open to correction and vulnerable to the social risks that real diversity naturally brings, these students take what is surely a small amount of information–perhaps one emotive course on colonialism, or a powerful freshman gender studies seminar–and dictate the culture that must, per justice, emerge on campus. Not only does such a phenomenon cede the higher ground of education from the classroom to the ambient culture (including social media), it betrays the students it seeks to help by telling them a lie: That they have already discovered the real truth of their studies, and that their preexisting notions of justice and equality ought not, at this point, be challenged. What’s happening to the students is no longer education, but ordination.

Taking college students so seriously directly harms young adults in many ways, but two stand out. First, students who are coddled into thinking their intellectual formation is final and unquestionable are unlikely to see much value in studying the thinkers of the past. C.S. Lewis called this “chronological snobbery,” and it is a threat that we see more and more in our culture. Fewer college students graduate with serious appreciation for the work of generations older than Marx. More and more young professionals are not conversant with a stunning percentage of Western literature, political science, and theology. The value of old books and old thinkers is that, when we take them seriously, they explode our suspicion that we are utterly unique in our beliefs, habits, vices, and virtues. When we’re “protected” from those whose beliefs we think we’ve progressed past, we attribute to ourselves a fraudulent intellectual novelty.

The second harmful effect of taking college students too seriously is that it communicates a false idea of what life is like. College students, because they are by nature immature and more emotive, believe that good intentions, humor, passion, and just a little bit of knowledge  are what really matter in life. But this is only because the college campus is, like the high school locker room, a closed universe that doesn’t really reflect the necessary habits of mind and soul that make for success outside parental watchfulness. Habits like diligence can fall by the wayside with the allure of student loans and curved grade scales. Virtues like patience and self-control erode in the context of responsibility-free weekends. The point is that the world of college should not be confused for the world of adult life. When students are treated not like students but like fully formed philosophers and activists, this reality is missed.

Should you take college students seriously? Yes, you should. I’m glad my professor took my questions seriously. His patience and empathy helped me feel welcome, yes, but more than that, it helped me feel that this one particular season of intellectual uneasiness wasn’t permanent. Instead of telling me I should form a Facebook group or offering to include my thoughts in his next lecture, my professor responded to my searching with his own learning and experience. That’s what I treasured, and still treasure, about my college education, and I’m very thankful that I wasn’t taken so seriously that I missed it.

Being Christian In an Age of Fear

We live in a fearful age, and Christians are not exempt.

Are we living in a generation of fear? It’s not as simple a question as it might seem. It requires digging underneath the seemingly endless sediment of distraction and medication that frees millions of Americans every day from the task of reflection. Fear, like love, is usually only identified by its extreme manifestations, those things which we call “paranoia.” Yet for many people there seems to be an undercurrent of dread beneath their daily lives. And it could be that this dread is choking out the possibility of authentic empathy and self-understanding.

Consider the reflections of Mark Shiffman in his piece on college students and the humanities. Study of humanities has declined, Shiffman writes, in large part because students enter college driven by fear that they will leave unprepared for long term economic success. Even the students that do enroll in philosophy, literature, art or history do so almost apologetically, with an air of anxiety about the possible long-term consequences of spending (or borrowing) money on such an education. It’s not the desire for jobs that Shiffman laments, but the fear-driven, parent-constructed rituals that students go through in order to gain a rigid control of the future. Many of Shiffman’s students are scared to stop and ask themselves the big questions of life (which is the great contribution of the humanities to education), since doing so might mean falling behind in “the real world.” The students, conditioned since elementary school to do more and be more for the sake of a resume or permanent record, are frightened by their own inner lives:

When the kid at the next desk might out-­compete me, edging me out of the path to economic security, then the hope that we may prevail together gives way to the fear that I will be the one who fails. When the specter of shrinking prosperity increases competition for scarce opportunities and engenders doubt that I will do as well as my parents, that fear intensifies. At the same time, we hear of vague, unpredictable threats—global warming, economic volatilities, the terrorism that has turned airports and government buildings into places almost entirely organized around our attempt to forestall disaster. Our fear has become a pathological condition, a desperate need to bring the future under control. And we seek therapy from colleges and universities, the therapy of cumulative achievement along clearly marked pathways to success.

Fear has a tendency to crowd out reflection and real personal growth. It can create an obsession about the subjunctive and a preoccupation with the future that undermines the emotional and spiritual stability necessary to form habits of healthy thinking. And it doesn’t always have to be individualistic. Take as one example the trend of “helicopter parenting,” wherein adults make sure that every aspect of a child’s day is under close surveillance and control. In this case, the parents’ fear of danger plays a part in depriving a child of the development of physical and emotional maturity that comes through experiences shared with peers. The fear is understandable, but it is also exacerbated by Amber alerts and bestselling kidnapping memoirs.

Indeed, in our cultural exchange, fear is often its own self-fulfilling prophecy. Conspiracy theories are appealing because of their preemptive disqualification of rebuttals (“Of course that’s what the experts say, because they’re in on it!”) and the sense of control and understanding that they bring their adherents. There are extreme examples of this that are out of the mainstream, but many regular people fall prey to the cultural climate that creates them. David Brooks, contemplating the most ridiculous responses to Ebola, suggests that many people look to theories of mass collusion for vindication for their feelings of isolation and insignificance. Fear can feel empowering when it identifies the enemy.

That last point is a salient one for conservative Christians. Great cultural and political change in the country seems poised to throw traditionalist believers off the ledge of societal relevance they sidle right now. This can create understandable feelings of dread and hostility towards “mass media” or even unbelievers. Even if the culture war is indeed lost—though I’m not wholly convinced that’s true—there are still codes of honor that govern how Christians engage the city of man. Allowing fear, even fear that materializes, to drive our strategy in the coming years is not only a recipe for further defeat, it is flatly against the basic doctrines of faith, divine sovereignty, and promise of perpetual good for those who love the Lord.

Assuming a faithful posture in the face of fear is critical for Christian witness. Speaking into a culture that is without Christ is to speak to millions who operate their daily lives without any transcendent hope of good. Most people truly believe that they alone are worthy of their trust, and that the world and its ultimate fate is entirely up to culture. Into this despair the Gospel brings good news of forgiveness, reconciliation, resurrection and the redemption of all things. There simply is no better word to speak into the age of fear than the story of Jesus.
Yet it is not enough that this is said. It must be lived in vibrant community that fleshes it out.

Going back lastly to Shiffman’s essay, I think Christians involved in the discipline of cultural engagement have something in common with those fearful students. Many of us were, I think, sold a bill of goods describing what was necessary to persuade the unbelieving culture. Perhaps it was something like theology + winsomeness = persuasion? Likewise Shiffman’s students entered college convinced that if they continued the blueprint for economic stability, they could be guaranteed success. What they didn’t know was that success is more than a salary. Evangelicals should take a lesson from the students and remind themselves that there is no measure of cultural success outside simple faithfulness to Christ. Overcoming fear–of cultural marginalization and the loss of public prestige–is necessary if we are going to boldly announce our God and his kingdom.

Why You Should (Probably) Major in Philosophy

  1. Philosophy is difficult.
  2. But it is not very difficult. It’s easier than calculus and a lot easier than physics.
  3. Philosophy is all about books, books, books.
  4. An enormous amount of the most important philosophy books you can read are public domain and therefore (legally) free. If you want to build a library on a budget, philosophy is the way to go.
  5. Philosophy is about ideas.
  6. Philosophy isn’t just about old ideas
  7. Philosophy isn’t just about new ideas
  8. A good philosophical education will give you a foundation in literature
  9. …in history
  10. …in logic
  11. …in art
  12. …in math
  13. ….in science
  14. …in law
  15. …in writing
  16. ….in theology
  17. ….in politics
  18. and much more.
  19. Philosophy is one of the few subjects that will actually affect how you watch movies like The Matrix, Star Wars, Inception, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and lots of others (if you want to learn how to interpret movies well, skip the film degree and do philosophy).
  20. Aside from theology, philosophy boasts the richest contributions from Christians.
  21. Within philosophy you can study a mind-boggling number of topics and traditions, like epistemology (how do we know things?), ethics (what is right and wrong?), metaphysics (is there a God?), linguistics (what do our words mean?), aesthetics (what makes something beautiful?), philosophy of history (what does it all mean?), philosophy of science (is science really worth anything?), etc.
  22. Philosophy will help you have better conversations.
  23. Philosophy will help you have better reasoning skills
  24. Philosophy may help you get a job.
  25. Philosophy will make you, if you let it, into a lifetime learner.

Millennials and their stories

Not all generational critiques are made equal. To say that baby boomers were like this or that Generation Y’ers acted like that carries with it inherent risks of overgeneralization, ad hominem, and just pure nonsense. And of course, all observation is done by an observer, and observers need to be observed too. When it comes to commenting on generational characteristics/flaws, one can never be too mindful of the proverbial plank and the proverbial speck.

But let’s put that aside for a moment and consider millennials. I am a millennial. My wife is a millennial. My closest friends are millennials, and a fair amount of my reading and personal formation has come via millennials. Millennials are many good things. They tend to be energetic, generally polite, and creative in ways that make them stand out from the averages of their parents and grandparents. But I’m afraid that one characteristic that is defining many millennials is one with very serious and troubling implications: Millennials are all about “my story.”

Millennials tend to think of the world as a movie in which they are the star. That’s not just a verbose way of saying that millennials are vain; rather, that’s how millennials relate to their world. They tend to understand the facts, events, and realities around them either in relationally immediate or relationally nonexistent categories. Either something is crucial to their well being and their life, or it’s totally irrelevant. Thus, many younger millennials are totally apathetic about politics, but the ones who care often care in a possessive, personal way. A millennial who doesn’t feel that politics is part of their “movie” often comes across as lazy and uncaring about the world, when in reality they just can’t comprehend why emotional capital should be spent on something that doesn’t involve them.

On the other hand, a millennial who cares about politics will often display an inordinate amount of passion and sensitivity about politics; to cross their views is to cross them personally. And here is where this characteristic of millennials becomes most troublesome. Because millennials view their lives as individual narratives in which the rest of the world plays a supporting role, they tend to be fiercely protective of their identities. The key part of a millennial’s identity is not (often unlike their parents) their religion, their ethnicity, or their family name. Rather, a millennial’s identity rests chiefly in their story. A millennial’s story is the fundamental part of who they are, the most important thing about the most important part of their “movie.” And it’s often the one thing that must never be challenged or questioned.

For a millennial, a story isn’t just a mark of identification, it’s a holy source of authority. I say holy with all seriousness. Even millennials with deeply held religious beliefs often talk about those beliefs not as universal realities that concern billions of people and with trans-historic importance, but as a part of their individual story. To disagree with someone’s religion is, for a millennial, not so much a challenge to an objective set of truth claims as it is a personal challenge to someone’s identity, worth, and value. To question my religion is to question me, and to question me is to try to invade my “movie” to create your own.

Now, when it comes to religion, that characteristic has been true of many people, not just millennials. But in millennials, we often see this tendency exhibited in most subjects, not just religion. This is precisely why The Atlantic ran a recent cover story on the “coddling of the American mind,” a movement within American higher education that seeks to cater to millennials’ emotional mores through academic suppression. It’s important to remember that the young adults who are asking for administrative (and sometimes legal) intervention to prevent being confronted with offensive content are not faking it. They are not putting on airs. They are genuinely unable to process the stress and the epistemological labor of learning and being in a context that is not immediately friendly to their stories. They can’t go forward until they are reassured that who they are is who they are supposed to be, and that nothing and no one can ever legitimately challenge that.

What’s fascinating is that while the stories of millennials are often invulnerable to critique (because they are not an arguable set of facts but an extension of personal identity and experience), they are, ironically, often applied in an authoritative way towards others. For a millennial, an anecdote isn’t just an argument, it’s the best argument. A personal story in which someone is wounded or hurt by a particular law or politician is in fact far more effective and persuasive to a millennial than a complex series of logical arguments. This effect is compounded greatly by the fact that, in the age of the internet, information and knowledge are accessible to the same millions of people within seconds. Everyone is now an expert, and the best experts are not the ones who can string together the best facts and the best logic but the people who can tell the best story. That’s why anti-vaccine blogs flourish despite sharing the very medium that offers anyone without a medical degree some level of knowledge about inoculation. The anti-vaccination movement thrives not on strong logic but on strong stories (some of which are undoubtedly true).

Because millennials see their stories as authoritative, they are often as surprised to hear their narratives challenged or questioned as would be a 14 year old fundamentalist hearing the Bible questioned his first day of public high school. To say that a young twentysomething’s testimony of self-empowerment from the porn industry is incorrect and foolish is the height of arrogance to a millennial. To insist that abortion be illegal in the face of a personal story about a life seemingly saved from poverty by the termination of a pregnancy sounds not just callous and cold but breathtakingly ignorant to a millennial. That’s because what is being challenged is not merely philosophy or ideology but–in a very real sense–a sense of self.

What’s needed from the church in ministry to millennials is a presentation of Christian truth that is invasive. The gospel invades not only our intellectual presuppositions but also our baseline sense of identity and autonomy. The movie of our life in which we are stars is not, in fact, our movie, but the creative work of a Writer and Director whose authoritative control is both good and good for us. If we try as Christians to reach unbelieving millennials by appealing to their felt needs (“You should really feel the peace that Jesus gives,” “I’m so happy because of Christ”), we may unwittingly affirm their most un-Christian convictions.

There’s nothing but freedom in realizing that not even my story is ultimately about me. There’s nothing but peace and real lasting joy in losing ourselves for the sake of another, and for the sake of each other. To be invaded is a wonderful thing. There is a story better than my story, and it goes on and on, forever.

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Image Credit: “Teens sharing a song” by SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons