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Saving Children From Being Soft, Entitled, And Aimless

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Peruse any list of non-fiction bestsellers these days, and one is quickly struck by the reality that the most successful authors tend to be giants of American culture—prominent politicians, erudite pundits of all political persuasions, blue-check celebrities, or the occasional Ivy League academic hoping to cross over from scholarly paper writing into mainstream American mass market book commercialism.

Yet if one wants to find a book that resonates with urgency and brims with significance about the future of the American Experiment, look no further than a new book written by a high school teacher and strength coordinator from Texas.

In Setting the Bar: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Era of Distraction, Dependency, and Entitlement, educator Shane Trotter makes a claim that is so audacious, so jarring, and yet — from the perspective of a fellow high school teacher — so utterly obvious and true, it is infuriating that his book needed to be written to alert the non-educators of the world about the genuine crisis American civil society finds itself in.

He minces no words at the outset: “Our children are entitled, soft, and lacking much sense of purpose other than to satisfy their most superficial desires. The modern youth development paradigm focuses on providing the highest level of comfort and entertainment possible. We obsess on providing outcomes, but too often ignore the quality of the people we are creating.”

But this is no screed, highfalutin’ howling into the wind, or “Get Off My Lawn” tome directed at young Americans. His book is both deceptively simple and monumentally complex. It is a simple warning.

Our culture, our families, our schools, and our institutions are not producing high-quality human beings capable of flourishing as individuals or perpetuating the habits and social mores that fuel the dynamism of a free society. The book is also complex as he exhaustively explains the multiplicity of reasons American children have become physically obese, mentally depressed, socially isolated, politically cynical, and morally confused.

Something Essential

Trotter eloquently explains that we have both made our children the center of the universe and completely disconnected from the things that really matter. As he humorously explains, “You have to have four social media accounts. You have to check them constantly so that you aren’t missing out. You have to constantly engage with the newest apps. You have to be competing with friends throughout class on the latest, greatest phone game. Most importantly, you have to be constantly curating awesome profiles that show everyone how witty, pretty, funny, careless, defiant, woke you are. Overwhelming.”

In addition to the endless spigot of social media consumption, students play hours of video games, consume energy drinks with abandon, possess the unhealthiest diet of any homo sapiens in the history of our species (fast food, processed foods, endlessly fatty foods), while also being the most sedentary. When young people profess their misery, well-meaning parents and counselors are quick to prescribe psychotropic remedies such as Adderall.

Is it any mystery why American children don’t sleep well, don’t communicate well, and frequently come off as angry, snotty, and bereaved to their elders? As Trotter summarizes the situation, “Something about the modern world seems to be leaving many starved of something essential.”

The core of his book, and its most brilliant section, is an exploration of this “essential” something. It is obvious that Trotter spends much of his life in pursuit of building strength in others. Many of his critiques have the same basic concern: young people are becoming weak. Physically weak. Mentally weak. Emotionally weak. And we adults have facilitated this weakness by forgetting the ancient virtue of fortitude.

We solve children’s problems for them.

We give everyone a trophy.

We criticize a meritocratic system simply because everyone can’t be a winner.

We make kids endlessly comfortable when it is discomfort that builds muscle and inner resolve.

We protect them from failure when it is failure that imparts wisdom.

We are terrified of teaching that right is right and wrong is wrong and that feelings are not the best barometer of truth.

We are afraid to say that shame does have a constructive place in society. And no, liberty is not the same thing as licentiousness.

Trotter’s view is that the “good life” is simply out of reach for children who are steeped in technological addiction, moral relativism, the cult of victimhood, and radical egalitarianism. And that is because the good life requires virtues that are largely out of fashion today. As he asks, “How would a 14-year old today compare with one in 1947 in regards to discipline, resilience, courage, gratitude, perseverance, toughness, patience, ingenuity, physical fitness, honesty, loyalty, or citizenship?”

The Bounds of Human Potential

Those who work in the modern school system can attest that these virtues are wildly out of fashion. Instead, educators are exposed to a never-ending parade of training about the virtues of compassion, tolerance, empathy, safety, equity, and the like. This is not to discount the importance of these virtues—I certainly hope as an educator I practice each of them every day—but they have drowned out the importance of learning how to acquire the ancient virtues that would empower a person to thrive in a cruel and unjust world.

Trotter’s worldview blends the fatalism of the Greeks with the creedal optimism of Jeffersonian liberalism. Echoes of Aeschylus and Sophocles can be heard in Trotter’s ardent belief that a successful life requires a certain level of physicality and brute strength. Humans are forever susceptible to the impersonal whims of a harsh and punishing world. What we want, how we feel, our most secret hopes and desires, play absolutely no role in the world we actually have—that is, unless we possess a battery of intellectual and moral habits that can shape our lives instead of being victims of circumstance.

Trotter’s ideal is a “fervor for human excellence.” He wants young Americans to stop wallowing in a miasma of bad habits, indulgent behavior, and shallow ambitions and instead to “explore the bounds of human potential—to play, laugh, love, fight, think, and live with as much energy, life, and excellence as possible.”

Perhaps his most insightful observation revolves around what he calls “The Deepest Inequality.” For all the talk of “income inequality” and America’s recent lack of “social mobility,” the most important inequality is between those who recognize the pitfalls of modern technologically-driven consumer culture and are vigilant in combatting its corrupting effects versus those who are so saturated in its excrement and excess that they have surrendered to its deadening consequences. As he warns, “have-nots” will “continue to face disproportionately high rates of obesity, heart disease, suicide, depression, anxiety, drug overdoses, and general despair.”

There is not much to criticize other than, perhaps, the ambition of the book itself.

In addition to documenting and explaining the ailments of American youth, he has additional sections about the problematic practices of modern American schools and different suggestions about a “new curricular core” that focuses on the development of the self and the inculcation of healthy habits. These sections, while fascinating and well-written, could have been an entirely different book, a follow up, perhaps, to the essential point of Setting the Bar.

This is a gentle criticism, of course, stemming from my own hope that there will be more books by Trotter in the future. We would all be better off for it.