Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation
Jeremy S. Adams | Regnery Publishing, USA | 2021, 220 pp

Jeremy Adams, an American high school teacher with twenty years’ classroom experience, gives a frightening glimpse of the hollowed out lives of today’s youth. He traces the parallel ever deepening descent into meaningless of the institutions that surround and shape them.

Family, school, culture and the political system are all being progressively “hollowed out” of any sense of objective, enduring truth. “Truth” Adams writes, “is (considered) only subjective.” Everyone is free “to construct individual identities and moralities unmoored from any objective truth.”

At first encounter, this book might seem like a now familiar reiteration of well-worked conservative social commentary. However, the rather shocking difference is that Adams traces the exponential progression of successive batches of students into ever deeper disengagement from the enterprise of building a life of worth both for themselves and others.

Engulfing ennui

Adams notes that, in his earlier years of teaching, students were still exercised by ideals of equality, individual liberty and pluralism, even though they had already lost faith with the America that formulated such principles. Many of his earlier students went on to shine in “Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood” and involve themselves in works of altruism. While they may have lost faith with State and Church, they still held many of their core ideals. Now, Adams writes, his students have become profoundly alienated, apathetic, indifferent to everything except the pleasures of the here and now. Nothing seems worth effort or commitment or even interest. 

Life is lived out in the “small and granular” at a time when they should be “expanding their orbits”. Adams lays much of the blame on ubiquitous social media devices and their myriad applications.

The addictive nature of video games, online pornography, checking “likes” on Twitter and other platforms pushes out real life and real relationships and everything that demands effort from us.

This is the generation of the “kidults” who while away hours at their screens in their parents’ basements at a stage of life when previous generations were already building careers and planning homes and families of their own.

This emotional and intellectual atrophy also extends to the spiritual realm. The “big questions” don’t provoke or engage them enough to raise arguments and objections. Adams experiences only blank, bored faces and minds instead of dissent or curiosity. 

The only religion they want is “one that fulfills their immediate desires and demands nothing in return”. They may be quite doctrinaire on questions like environmental degradation, animal rights and racism, but insist on “hardened relativism” in their own lives. “Feelings” are their only guide on moral questions.

They appear to have lost the sense that “behind the seen lies the immeasurable unseen”, writes Adams, quoting C.S. Lewis. They have been spiritually anaesthetised by the hedonism and instant gratification of the culture that surrounds them. Adams rather alarmingly admits to occasionally “succumbing” himself to the “numbing nihilism”.

Eviscerated education

The school environment in which he works offers no support. On the contrary, Adams identifies American schools as contributing to the problem. Apart from the mesmeric attraction of electronic devices, “legal narcotics”, and the stupefying effect of living virtually and vicariously, he blames the capitulation of schools to new doctrines of “infantile individualism” as no small part of the collapse of the belief and value system that built our civilisation and underpinned social and civil order for centuries.

Aware of the fractured and, in many cases, impoverished families of many students, schools overcompensate by indulging bad behaviour. Disruptive classrooms have an adverse effect on other students with an interest in learning. Adams decries the trend of teachers being “friends” with their students, encouraging “endless, novel projects of self-invention”. “Adults,” he writes, “need to be adults, not friends”.

The curriculum is hollowed out. The classics and the Bible that have been the bedrock of a humane and liberal education for generations are considered fatally tainted because of their associations with colonial oppression and other historic transgressions. In fact, reading any book for pleasure or edification is in decline not only among students, but also among the adults around them. Homes like schools favour screen time over books, despite neuroscience research telling us “the digital world is harmful to the cognitive development of children and teens”.

Feeble families

It is the hollowing out of the family that Adams identifies as the fundamental cause of the collapse of norms. Many of the core conventions of family life have fallen away, compounding, and no doubt, in part at least, arising from, the impermanent and shifting nature of the family structure itself as well as the demands and distractions of modern life.

The family dinner is one example Adams offers. It has, he says, gone the way of church attendance. He quotes research that finds twenty percent of family meals are eaten in the car. The ubiquity of digital technology that follows children and adults alike through mealtimes and bedtimes is of course an impediment to person-to-person conversation. The neglect of activities that nurture family life is a root cause of the hollowing out of the family and culture as a whole.

It is sobering to hear the experience of Adams himself, who acknowledges how difficult he finds it to separate his own teenage children from their devices. Even the best efforts of the best qualified parents may not be enough to fight back against a cultural tide that the school system has already bought into.

It is hardly surprising that marriage and family are no longer the “universal aspiration” they once were. In an age of hedonism and instant gratification, it is difficult to convince the young that relationships need time, effort and sacrifice to blossom into the deep, companionate love that sustains couples and families through the challenges of ageing, ill health and the many other ups and down that beset every life.

Shattered society

In his chapter on the hollowing out of politics, Adams, observes that the polarisation and ideological tribalism of western politics has become a further agent of division within families and communities. People fall out on social media just as quickly as they make “friends”. Politics he says, has invaded every corner of life, pushing people into hostile camps. There is no tolerance for intellectual diversity and “no middle ground” where questions can be explored in a spirit of open enquiry.

Every chapter of Hollowed Out begins with a quotation from Tolstoy. What is extraordinary is how thinkers of earlier decades and even centuries seem to be describing and predicting the peculiar ills of modern life with such uncanny precision. Writing about the opinion-formers of his time, Tolstoy says,

“They stagnate in their own ignorance and immorality. And they are fully convinced that they are standing at a summit never previously reached by humanity.” (from A Confession and Other Religious Writings)

One might ask, given how apposite Tolstoy’s words are for our own age, if a long succession of conservative social commentators are perhaps overstating the risks of the collapse of the norms on which our civilisation is built?

Despite the despairing words of successive prophets, the world keeps turning. Things get better and things get worse. Is this not the perennial flux of human affairs, or are we really being carried to our doom on a tide whose backwashes may confuse for a while the direction of travel?

Adams’ book answers the question for me. He does establish that the dominant momentum is towards disintegration and despair. He is more than an observer of the signs of the times. He is an active player in the two key areas that are at once both upstream and downstream of culture and politics, namely the family and the school.

His experience will resonate powerfully with parents and teachers who read his book. The exponentially incremental dismantling and destruction of norms and values he reveals is recognisable to all who struggle against the ever more aggressive tide of modernity’s dogmas.

The equally incremental erosion of those institutions that should hold modern creeds to scrutiny and account, such as centres of learning and research and faith bodies, is adding to the sense that there may indeed be a point of no return and that it is drawing noticeably closer in our own time. Quoting T.S. Eliot, Adams warns that the abandonment of the “permanent things”, the norms of our being have fatal consequences, “because all other grounds are quicksand”.

Margaret Hickey writes on faith and social issues and has been published in The Irish Examiner, Human Life Review(US), Position Papers, The Furrow, The Iona Blog and The Irish Times.