How Mollycoddling is Ruining Humanities Students

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Pixelbay. Free License.

Can we please stop saying that kids are the most talented creators in the world?

Here’s teensy Sally who copies a Wikipedia article for a three panel presentation. She stands by the couch and dutifully reads it and the response is, “When are you available to give a keynote at Toastmasters International?” Next weensy Wally has to saw out Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the violin and according to those who listen the Concertgebouw should consider him for concertmaster. Then itty-bitty Bally does a version of a magic trick where a scarf appears in an otherwise empty bowl, a trick entirely reliant upon a spring mechanism and a shell-bowl, but holy mackerel, David Copperfield watch out, somebody call Vegas. Next piddling Pally hauls out his most recent puddle of color he calls Wee Wee the cat. Ok that’s it, how old does one have to be for the MOMA retrospective? Finally, here’s dinky Dally who at the tender age of six is writing the next great novel, and this just in, DeLillo says he’s giving up as he can no longer complete with such genius.

I recognize familial pride, and I concede fools who have been suckled on idiot-coms with laugh tracks and thus have no understanding of art. But you’ve been at El-Hi talent nights too and so you know that attending these is right up there with wearing a hair onesie while having gastro. In other words, any fool knows that for the most part art done by kids is terrible.

The Everyone gets a trophy! mentality has gone awry

Recently I attended a conference where a social science researcher who worked with teenagers said things along the lines of, “These kids were so amazingly talented. They did some of the best art ever.” And everyone in the room nodded as they apparently felt they should when researchers speak about young adult creations. They seem to think these normally mouthy, Axe-covered, hormonal, impulsive, horny, unfocused, junk food eating, simulacra of human beings are some of the best artists one might ever find. So oddly, when these amazingly talented kids applied to go to art school, they didn’t get accepted. The social science researcher and team blamed it on the fact the kids were from an underprivileged economic strata and they couldn’t get up the money to put together a decent portfolio. (You can’t get rejected unless you apply, by the way, so evidently they did put together a portfolio and apply). Well, it struck me as odd. I know something about how the application process works so I looked up the specific school. The institution uses SlideRoom, as do most schools of art. SlideRoom is an online platform where those applying upload about 8–12 images of their work to create a virtual portfolio if you will. Applicants can also add a statement. SlideRoom fee at this particular art college: $12. Next in a typical process, admissions committee members go through each virtual portfolio, they read the statement, and they rate the work using a sliding numerical scale. The results are all compiled and depending on the number of available seats in relation to the number of applications, a certain number of acceptance letters are sent out to students, starting with the best scores and then working down through the ratings.

Just to pursue this a bit more, student submissions are generally horrible. Statements often start out with the line, “Ever since I was a baby and could hold a pencil,” which always worries me because I don’t think babies should be playing with pointy pencils. The student’s visuals usually include: a portrait of whatever pop singer is hot as copied from photograph, a Bob Ross looking landscape, some Anime sketches, a work with pattern, and a poorly hand built clay bowl. Committee members work hard to look past the lack of effort and cliche themes for some spark, some glint of real engagement or in the case of the statement, life experience or the ability to reflect. The committee members (normally faculty) know that first year for these students will be all about breaking bad habits and helping them to begin to understand the world beyond their own head and family.

So the social science researchers set up a meeting with the art school administration. The school said they would work with the students to help them prepare their portfolios by allowing them to take, apparently, some pre-college courses such as drawing. It appears then the rejections were not about economics but about a lack of quality of the art. But wait a minute. Didn’t the researcher say, and didn’t the room full of people agree, that the work done by these kids was brilliant, stupendous, amazing, best ever? Apparently it was not.

What futher irks me is that very often the people who jump to praise the art done by kids or young adults, whether their kid or some random kid on a morning program, are the same people who give no respect to contemporary serious artists. They see a serious, contemporary art show and they say, “Oh, I don’t get it,” or “Anyone could do that.” They hear new classical music and say, “I don’t think that was very good.” They refuse to read literary novels. Yet, their kid squeaks out a fart and it’s genius.

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Dunce by Wayne Wilkinson.(2012). Wikimedia commons

If the pampering parents were a touch smarter they might grasp what occurs once their PLSs (precious little snowflakes) get into university. The fallout goes something like this: The supposedly highly talented creative young adults, who all along have been coddled for any and every dabble have:

* no idea how to learn.

* no idea about work effort and labor

* no concept formation and realization

* no sense of ongoing practice

* an inability to analysis

* an inability to critique

* no awareness of public reception

* a need for immediate praise

* a need for a no-effort result

* no understanding of revision

* a desire for full marks for attempts

* a fear of challenges

* an inability to consider possibilities

* a lack of expectations of themselves

In the arts, all of this this is a recipe for failure, even as we do our damndest to help them. Students fail assignments and they fail courses. Irregardless of the grade they get, we know in our hearts these students won’t stick with humanities, they just can’t get beyond their coddled mentalities. We watch helplessly as they attempt to learn while multitasking, as they settle for first ideas that are often their worst ideas, as they cry when their work is not praised, and as they suffer from stifling anxiety and doubt. I’m empathetic, but unlike mommy and daddy, I’m not sympathetic. If I hear the phrase “existential crisis” once more I’m going to start assigning Sartre and Dostoyevsky. Or, maybe I should start assigning emotional support shoes.

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Oscar Wilde said it well: “The work of art is to dominate the spectator: the spectator is not to dominate the work of art.”

I spend some of my first classes teaching about how to learn — this is at the university level. I shouldn’t have to do this but I get better results if I do. Nonetheless some students get it some don’t. Some actively refuse to move onward toward scholarship. I pity the advisors must deal with the parents of college age Sally and Wally, parents who just can’t figure out how their precious and talented kids can be doing so poorly. Even if they heard the truth they wouldn’t understand it: They’re the ones who taught their kids to create works with only a single title: The contents of my navel.

The longer term fallout of all this mollycoddling is that a sense of what culture is in society gets lost. As adults who possess no critical and analytical ability, they are unable to differentiate between André Rieu, Gidon Kremer, and that 3 year old violinist. His tiny tux was pretty special though. They can’t figure out the difference between a humanities course as fun time/that supplementary course/a quick splash in various wading pools and art as deep diving/serious effort and focus/ a life’s dedication to one’s craft. They are seriously confused by issues of quality, marketing, and sales. On the more individual level, the young adults who they praised all the way up enter college as dabblers and ultimately dilettantes. Or, to use more contemporary language, they are coddled multitasker Gen Zs with short attention spans and a hyper-personalization approach to just in time results.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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