Time to Stop Worshipping Youth Over Wisdom

It has become something of a trope for political actors and thought leaders to seek the engagement of young people, and to praise it once they have it. Thus do we see it heralded when the youth are out in force clamoring for gun control, sexual libertinism, abortion rights, defunding the police, environmental restrictions in the name of “climate change,” free college tuition and socialism or other types of collectivist policies. The popular narrative is that if young people are involved, the cause must be worthy, and listening to the “voices of our future” is inevitably a path to progress.

History says otherwise.

Take the Cambodian Genocide of the 1970s, for example. The Khmer Rouge communists took power after a civil war and collapse of the government; they were responsible for the deaths of between 1.5 and 3 million Cambodians, either through imprisonment, torture and execution or starvation in forced labor camps that became the infamous “killing fields.” According to a 2011 article in the Phnom Penh Post, the average age of the Khmer Rouge soldiers was 17.

Oppressive regimes love to use the youth as the tools of their murder and destruction. In both the former Soviet Union and in China during the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong, children were encouraged to turn in their parents for falling short of communist ideals; many were then imprisoned and/or executed. Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony kidnapped thousands of children and teenagers and trained them to become his army of rapists, torturers and executioners. ISIS and other Islamic terrorist organizations recruit (or conscript by force) and indoctrinate children and adolescents to become soldiers and suicide bombers.

There are plenty of reasons why young people are so often at the vanguard of brutal or revolutionary movements. In addition to their enthusiasm and energy, they are highly suggestible, easily swayed by inflammatory rhetoric, susceptible to black-and-white thinking (and thus more easily incentivized to violence), eager to prove themselves, much more inclined to believe in the perfectibility of people (and the larger world) and hard-wired to look for a sense of belonging.

They also lack experience, have little knowledge of history or much understanding of human nature, all of which tend to provide perspective, nuance and better judgment. Revolutionaries and ideologues want blind adherence, not hard questions.

While the United States has not descended into the barbarism of the events described above, we are already suffering the consequences of a culture that obsessively idolizes youth and the ignorance that accompanies it.

This is certainly evident in matters of sexuality and education. The “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s, aided by the explosion of mass media, has produced a culture that promotes irresponsible sexual behavior in young people 24/7/365. The consequences have been disastrous. Not only are rates of sexually transmitted diseases highest in the 15-24 age range, the hypersexualization of every aspect of their lives has contributed to record levels of mental illness in young people: low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, self-mutilation, eating disorders, even suicide, which is now the second leading cause of death in that age group.

A country that held wisdom in higher esteem would rethink things. But not us — we’re doubling down. Our schools are now injecting pornographic texts, workshops on sexual kink, and bizarre theories of sexual and gender identity into the curricula and classroom culture. Meanwhile, American students are falling behind their counterparts in other developed nations in real academic subjects.

Equally concerning are the views that American young people now hold about truth, freedom of speech and censorship. Twenty years ago, almost 30% of college students responding to a poll reported that they did not believe in absolute truth; that number is probably higher today. Worse, young people increasingly believe that any viewpoint with which they have been told to disagree is “hate speech,” and no amount of factual or scientific argument can change their minds. In a poll conducted last fall, fully two-thirds of college students who responded stated that speech with which they disagree should be censored, silenced or otherwise curtailed.

This intolerance of opposing viewpoints has been infused with a dangerous sense of moral superiority, with the result that young people increasingly feel justified in resorting to violence or threats of violence to shut down debate.

Attempts to bring conservative — or even centrist — speakers to college campuses frequently descend into chaos. Over the past few years, there have been violent protests at New York University, Middlebury College and the University of California at Berkeley. Last month, federal appellate judge Kyle Duncan was shouted down, called vulgar names and prevented from speaking at Stanford University Law School. Last week, former NCAA championship swimmer Riley Gaines was attacked at San Francisco State University. Gaines is traveling around the country speaking in defense of keeping biological men out of women’s sports. She was accosted by a hostile mob that screamed obscenities at her, physically assaulted her and held her hostage, confining her within a classroom for several hours and refusing to allow her to leave.

This is not “progress.”

We need to change course before it’s too late. This is not to discourage our young people from involvement in causes they believe in. But their passion must be tempered by the observations and insights of those who are older, who have more experience and the wisdom that experience brings. Without it, there is little to keep us from slipping into the abyss of horrors so many other nations have endured.

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Laura Hollis

Laura Hirschfeld Hollis is a native of Champaign, Illinois. She received her undergraduate degree in English and her law degree from the University of Notre Dame. Hollis' career as an attorney has spanned 28 years, the past 23 of which have been in higher education. She has taught law at the graduate and undergraduate levels, and has nearly 15 years' experience in the development and delivery of entrepreneurship courses, seminars and workshops for multiple audiences. Her scholarly interests include entrepreneurship and public policy, economic development, technology commercialization and general business law. In addition to her legal publications, Hollis has been a freelance political writer since 1993, writing for The Detroit News, HOUR Detroit magazine, and the Christian Post, on matters of politics and culture. She is a frequent public speaker. Hollis has received numerous awards for her teaching, research, community service and contributions to entrepreneurship education. She is married to Jess Hollis, a musician, voiceover artist and audio engineer, and they live in Indiana with their two children, Alistair and Celeste.

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