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I have been teaching college students for a little over two years. Without fail, I have at least one student per semester who breaks down crying, one who drops out of college completely, and several who fail their courses. I could be cynical about these facts. I could blame the “snowflake” mentality that the parents of this generation have, or the lack of work ethic among the millennial youths. But these are not the real issues. Fear is the real issue. I have witnessed the decay of independence among these young adults, and we’re all to blame.

Here is where I might go off on a tirade about what was the norm back in my day. I won’t subject you to that. You know as well as I do that things have changed. Kids don’t play outside as much. We are wired in much more. There is a heightened focus on scheduled activities and not a lot of room to foster independence in children. We hear stories about parents being investigated for neglect after allowing their kids to walk to the park alone. As a society, we aren’t affording today’s children with the ability to learn or the opportunity to fail. Coping with this failure is an essential life skill.

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I distinctly remember the first time I ever pumped gas. My mother asked me to do it. I was ten. She told me to pick up the nozzle and where to put it. She told me how the handle worked, and then she told me where to go to pay (back in the days when you could pump before you paid). I was nervous I’d spill gas. The warning stickers plastered all over the place didn’t make me feel any less anxious about the endeavor. And then, when it came time to pay, I felt my chest tighten like a stress ball that was being squeezed too hard. I’d have to go inside the station and find the cashier, tell him the pump number, and hand him my mother’s card. Surely I would screw it up.

It feels ridiculous now, to have been so anxious about something so simple. But in the the moment, and as a severely introverted kid, it was terrifying experience. My mother continued to put me in these situations throughout my entire life. She challenged me to learn to drive. She made me try out for extracurricular activities that she thought would be enriching. She set me loose in the kitchen, armed with ingredients and recipes. She asked me to pick up groceries after school, or run to the bank. She put me in charge of my own time. There was never a schedule in our house. I was given expectations to meet and room to fail. I did both on an alternating basis.

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On the first day of the semester I always spend a good amount of time talking to my classes. I ask them about their major areas of study, their interests, where they went to high school. And I am constantly amazed by the answers. I’ve had students taking seven classes in one semester, or enrolled in more extracurricular activities than I even knew existed. The full-time job I held down while getting my degree seems like easy work compared to the unpaid internships, sports, and clubs that these students participate in in addition to classes and jobs. Although some of their schedules are dictated by interests and social activities, much is dictated by resume building. What internship will get my foot in the door? What extracurricular activities will look the most impressive for my field? Where students used to spend their free time exploring things that weren’t part of their normal course load, they now spend that time supplementing it. They’re trying to make up for the empty promise of higher education. They know that few jobs await them, and most won’t pay them enough to help dig out of the debt that they’ve accrued. So they pad their experience, hoping to stack the deck in their favor.

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When I prod, I find out that this did not begin during their freshman semester. Instead, students have thought deeply about their futures throughout high school. Students pursued sports not just because they liked it, but because it afforded them an opportunity to more scholarship money. They filled every moment of their adolescent lives with activities designed to pad their college applications. In college they do the same to pad their resumes. They have been strategic, and their schedules meticulously planned. They, or their parents, have eliminated constructive free time. They’ve removed anything that didn’t “pay out” to help them achieve the next steps. Because of this, they have missed out on experiences and failures that might have shaped them as people.

At the end of the semester, when those few students who have failed seem deflated, or that pupil who was overwhelmed has stopped attending classes, I always wonder if I could have done more as an educator to ensure their survival through their freshman year. It is my job to challenge them, to educate them, and to enrich them. Still, I wonder if our society has afforded them the opportunity to enrich themselves—to wander for the sake of it, to fall, to make mistakes, to flounder aimlessly. You can’t find yourself unless you get a little lost first.

This post was originally published on the blog: eatlife