It’s as frustrating as it is typical that cultural critics treat each new development in society as just another phase, as though it were an angsty adolescent trying out a new identity. In some ways, the thought that this or that specific trend is a phase with a beginning and an end may be comforting and easier to understand, but in other ways, it leads to inadequate solutions and circular arguments.
I suspect that a big reason for this is that most of these critics write for a living and often lack regular contact with the issues they analyze. They may be well read, well connected, and keep up with the news cycle, but too often this only grants a surface-level knowledge of the matter at hand. It does not give the full picture that comes from working directly with affected individuals on a daily basis.
With that said, Jeremy Adams, a teacher as well as a writer, is an important exception. His new book Hollowed Out: A Warning about America’s Next Generation combines the best of both of these worlds. As a writer, Adams clearly argues that younger generations are encountering serious social problems that threaten imminent nationwide decline. As a teacher, he can personally testify to his subject and speak authentically.
In Hollowed Out, Adams is like Virgil walking Dante through the Inferno, except that he walks the reader through the excruciatingly empty world of today’s iGens and younger millennials. They are ignorant, unambitious, anti-social, uncurious, materialistic, narcissistic, and profoundly unhappy. Yet they are strangely proud of all this and expect their free, prosperous world to continue as it always has. Worse still is that they have convinced so many of the older generations to expect this as well.
This situation prompts Adams to ask at the outset of his book, “What if the self-isolation and despair, the consumerism and cult of celebrity, the hectoring political correctness, the disdain for country and the retreat from kin, the fetishization of ‘feelings’ and the relativization of ethics, and the indulgence of vulgarity and obscenity are not ordinary generational schisms, but rather symptoms of something far worse, a powerful pestilence of the collective soul?”
In other words, what if this not another phase, but a terrifying new normal?
To begin, Adams asserts the hollowness originates from an undefined worldview: “We are at odds over the basics: what it means to be human, to find fulfillment, to use freedom to obtain ‘higher’ or ‘transcendent’ or ‘objective’ goods.” The reason so many young people waste their “reason, heart, and spirit” on frivolities is that they don’t believe in anything more than that. Despite all the attempts of the world to engage them, young people are profoundly “disengaged” and “not forging deep and meaningful connections to people, places, and traditions.”
For parents and teachers who work with these young people, this has immediate implications. That includes a complacent listlessness: “While teachers strive to help students become their best selves, many students don’t feel inclined to ‘become’ anything more than what they already ‘are,’ because, from their perspective, there is nothing to aspire to, no hierarchy of ‘the good,’ and they can imagine no higher power than an anodyne god who asks nothing of them.”
Under this framework, the very actions that define a fulfilled life are rendered meaningless. Life is not about what a person can do (which, for many young people, is next to nothing), but what a person is.
While some may contend it’s completely natural that young people be a little shallow, Adams explains at length this is not true. Something has changed in the past decade, and it’s no secret what it is – their phones.
It’s an inconvenient truth that is quickly forgotten, but Adams makes it clear: “Young people spend up to nine hours a day on their phones, most of it on social media platforms with a vapid parade of posts, comments, and pictures.” Unlike the real world, which imposes certain demands on its participants, the virtual world demands nothing and actively discourages things like introspection, reflection, and accountability.
Along with making them shallow, this also makes them lonely. Real connections are impossible, and virtual connections are designed to indulge users’ vanity. They don’t want friends; they want followers: “To many young people, a moment is only truly significant if it is observed and approved by others. Celebrity is the goal.”
That is, if there even is a goal. Otherwise, constant distraction is the goal, and the young person drifts further and further away from himself and others.
Adams follows this observation with a story of his students pushing him to get a blue checkmark. As they explain, “Twitter verified … means you are important. It means you’re, you know, big time.” If a person is not “big time,” is that failure? Perhaps, but the bigger problem here is that the whole pursuit of celebrity is pointless, with Adams concluding, “Unlike my students, I don’t care what Twitter thinks of me. What I care about is that my students think about more than Twitter and every other social media platform.”
Not surprisingly, this lonely life devoid of meaning or accomplishment leads many people to remain stuck in adolescence, particularly men. Adams notes so many don’t marry or even work, but play video games in their parents’ basement and somehow feel fine about it: “Grown adults in the past would have thought that moving back home was embarrassing, emblematic of personal failure.”
In Adams’s view, the lack of self-awareness in this regard betrays a barren, unromantic culture where escapism seems like the best option. The personal milestones that motivated people to mature and achieve have vanished. But, as Adams reminds his students and readers, “Avoiding responsibility might seem like a good idea as a young adult, but you are likely to regret it later when your career prospects have diminished, marriage and children seem unattainable, and you realize that your life is a story of talent and opportunity wasted.”
Surely then, Adams, an acclaimed teacher, would recommend educational reform as the remedy to this problem. Except that he doesn’t, since education has been hollowed out, too. “Teachers cannot put broken families back together. They cannot remake their students’ backgrounds. They cannot bring jobs to impoverished neighborhoods. This is not a counsel of despair. There is a way out—and we, as a society, need to do a much better job of pointing students (and their parents) towards it,” he writes.
This doesn’t mean education couldn’t be improved. Schools have adopted all sorts of gimmicks that have, more often than not, worsened the situation. Specifically, Adams mentions the bogus disciplinary model of restorative justice and bad humanities instruction.
In the first case, so many campuses have traded away punishment for therapy, which in practical terms simply means they have mostly created a rationale keeping bad students in the classroom to terrorize their teachers and classmates. Not only have restorative discipline and similar theories inhibited learning, they have rendered whole schools dysfunctional and often dangerous.
In the second case, many districts have adopted bad instructional strategies and lousy curriculum that lacks substance and relevance. Adams doesn’t even try to defend these pedagogical decisions as most teachers would, but decries the implicit societal death wish. “To abandon—almost completely, as school curricula routinely now do—a broad and robust exposure to the thinkers and books that set Western civilization in motion is not just a willful act of cultural amnesia. It is dangerous,” he observes.
This leaves faith and family as possible sources of redemption for a benighted generation that knows nothing and strives for nothing. However, ju
dging from young people’s disavowal of religion and familial ties, no one should expect any new Great Awakening. Rather, they can expect a Deep Sleep of illiterate geriatrics spending their last moments of life worshiping a false version of themselves on a screen.
Perhaps sensing the reader’s need for a small respite from an increasingly bleak description, Adams mentions in this section two lost habits that, if revived, could reverse some of what of he describes: reading and eating together as a family. Both are powerful tools for raising happy, competent children. The numerous studies and personal accounts he lists provide some indication of where to begin if one wants to save his children from being hollowed out.
Finally, Adams finishes strong with his final chapter: “Hollowed-Out Democracy,” which drives home his argument and inspires the reader to start addressing the real problems affecting society today.
He starts this chapter by bringing up the familiar problem of increasing political division and how this has not only ruined our personal lives, but also our conception of community and governance: “Elections are no longer about setting policy priorities for the next two to four years; they are dangerous exercises in personal affirmation at the expense of others, because for so many of us, in our hollowed-out selves, we are our political views.”
Adams remarks this has made patriotism partisan and generational. Young people have learned to hate their country and take their blessings for granted. This has made them cynical and fatalistic.
“Yet there is an entire cottage industry of very smart, creative, and influential people in our political and cultural life today who peddle vicious cynicism to our children, who poison them with the idea that they are now and always will be victims of an unjust society,” he writes. This is the main problem with Critical Race Theory. It pushes a false narrative that deprives students of agency and encourages a pessimistic view of effort and accomplishment.
Adams responds to this problem forcefully and beautifully: “I teach high school social studies. But something—common sense, real-world experience, intuition—tells me that if you teach young Americans that there is nothing they can do to improve themselves, then you have lied to them. The American dream is not a lie. I have seen it lived out over and over again. The big lie is that our students are hopeless, powerless victims. It is a lie that brings passivity and cynicism, that encourages finger-pointing and hate, that is a harmful counsel of despair.”
Like that, Adams manages to leave the reader uplifted even after this book details the lifelessness and misery plaguing younger generations. Even after seeing what he has seen, he testifies that success and happiness are possible, even if they don’t seem very likely.
Still, the reader might wish for more answers from Adams. While identifying the problem is a good first step, it never hurts to offer a few paths forward, even if it adds a few more pages.
Furthermore, readers may want to have more stories—and a teacher like Adams easily has plenty of them—to break up the piles of quotes and statistics that can be found in many other books. Adams is at his best when he writes about these experiences, and it’s a missed opportunity he doesn’t do it more often.
Even with those small criticisms (which are really just a plea for more), Hollowed Out is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is elegantly written and insightful. Adams doesn’t write clunky sentences, nor does he clutter his writing with superfluous statements and observations. His work is concise and quite readable.
More importantly, it’s wise. Adams calls this book his magnum opus, and rightly so. It reflects so many years of lived experience and deep thought, and yet it is accessible and is universally relevant. It offers numerous points to mull over as it presents a detailed picture of what the world has become. It makes sense of the increasing confusion in a way that most other nonfiction does not.
In short, Hollowed Out helps readers understand themselves and those around them. As such, it begins a long-deferred conversation about where our society is headed. Hopefully, readers will take Adams’s warnings to heart and begin the work of filling in this world that has become so dreadfully hollow.