Occupy Wall Street And The Limits Of Self-Esteem

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I love protests. Unlike normal people, if I see a small group gathered in protest, I go out of my way to figure out what they’re upset about. If you’re some crank on the street handing out flyers and everyone else is pretending not to see you, I’ll cross the street to read your handbill. So I’m excited that we have, with Occupy Wall Street, a protest movement going on right now. I even have two friends participating in it. I’ve visited a few of the Occupy sites and donated some books to the library.

I loathe crony capitalism and the lobbying-industrial complex. I was against the bailouts and the corrupt falsely-named “stimulus packages.” I hoped that this would be where Occupy Wall Street focused its efforts — on the collusion between big business and the government. Instead, it’s turned into a generally leftist movement with a somewhat narrow focus. Here’s how Inside Higher Ed put it:

A prominent (if disputed) criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been its amorphous, platform-free nature. But as the protests that began in New York in September have continued, spreading across the United States and the world, one clear issue of concern has emerged: student loan debt.

We also know that the movement isn’t exactly flourishing. A poll last week showed that six in 10 Americans can’t be bothered to form an opinion about it and nearly a third of Americans are downright disposed against the protests.

As I watch it from a distance, struggling, getting evicted, being visited or supported by celebrities (This Miley Cyrus bit? Come on, NO one deserves to hear that ear-piercingly awful song. I might prefer pepper spray over listening to that.), I wonder what the future holds for the movement.

But comparing the Occupy movement with some other social justice movements, I couldn’t help but think that there are some parenting lessons here.

The failure of our self-esteem obsession. I think I’m too old to have endured much of this, but this was the trend where students were encouraged to have high self-esteem for its own stake. Now, having a positive view of yourself is certainly important. But so is having a realistic one. In hiring and managing situations in recent years, I’ve had to deal with young adults who seem to have never been told anything critical about their performance. Many of my colleagues and friends have told harrowing stories about managing younger employees of a certain age. There was the woman who turned down an applicant for a job position only to receive a phone call from her mother. I’m not joking. I’m sure that crap worked in elementary school, but it’s ridiculous for a grown woman to be unable to deal with rejection or to tattle to her mother.

Some of my younger friends tell me that their parents practically applauded each bowel movement they made. Every piece of art they created was a masterpiece. Every athletic accomplishment was deserving of a medal. (You’ve heard, I’m sure, of the practice of not letting students actually compete against each other for rankings.)

Don’t you get the feeling that some of these kids out occupying were told that they were the bee’s knees for so long that they’re utterly confused as to why their puppetry degree isn’t resulting in a high-salaried position? You thought I was joking there, right? Well, check out this snippet from the first paragraph of a recent Nation article about the movement:

Frustrated by huge class sizes, sparse resources and a disorganized bureaucracy, he set off to the University of Connecticut to get an MFA in his passion—puppetry. Three years and $35,000 in student loans later, he emerged with degree in hand, and because puppeteers aren’t exactly in high demand, he went looking for work at his old school.

And so a generation raised to think it was so very special has created a social justice movement that is largely about themselves and not having to pay back their own student loans. It’s embarrassing. I’m not even saying that there aren’t major problems with student loans or the fact that the government subsidizes them and the education industry. I do think there are problems with that. But how do these kids not realize that this is not a winning message with the public? And yes, you’re right that I’m writing this as someone who had to work full-time while going to school full-time to avoid any debt.

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