1. With Labor Day behind us and Fall semester officially begun, it’s no wonder that higher education is back in the national spotlight. If only the news were a bit lighter… Alas, the atmosphere out there is one of concern bordering on alarm, and while the explanations vary, there seems to be widespread agreement that we’re experiencing something of breakdown in our nation’s universities, not just along ideological lines (predominantly left vs far left) but generational ones as well (students vs faculty, faculty vs administrators).

Writing in The NY Times, however, Frank Bruni claims the “real campus scourge” is not censoriousness or outrage or fragility but loneliness. And I can’t say I disagree–that is, it’s all of a piece but loneliness is where I find it easiest to summon compassion rather than judgment (more than enough of the latter already pointed in the millennial direction, as the pic below attests). Of course, where Bruni writes “campus”, I might substitute “culture” or “society”. Naturally, he locates the roots of the scourge in an expectation gap that appears to have widened considerably in recent years, as Jean Twenge so starkly reminded us last week:

College isn’t sold to teenagers as just any place or passage. It’s a gaudily painted promise. The time of their lives! The disparity between myth and reality stuns many of them, and various facets of youth today — from social media to a secondary-school narrative that frames admission to college as the end of all worry — worsen the impact.

In a survey of nearly 28,000 students on 51 campuses by the American College Health Association last year, more than 60 percent said that they had “felt very lonely” in the previous 12 months. Nearly 30 percent said that they had felt that way in the previous two weeks.

2. Which makes for a depressingly perfect lead-in to the Social Science Study of the Week Month Year, which comes to us via The Conversation, “So Many In the West Are Depressed Because They’re Expected Not to Be”. It’s a drum we’ve beaten umpteen times before, but I suppose that only makes it more urgent, not to mention Exhibits A-Z for those who would view the law/gospel dynamic as ancillary (or anything less than fundamental)–to the Christian faith or life in general, ht BPZ:

Valuing feelings of happiness or wanting others to be happy is not a bad thing. The problem arises when we come to believe we should always feel this way. This makes our negative emotions – which are inevitable and normally quite adaptive – seem like they are getting in the way of an important goal in life.

From this perspective, sadness is no longer an expected feeling you have when things go wrong. Rather, it is interpreted as a sign of failure; a signal something is wrong emotionally.

We found perceived social pressure not to feel depressed reliably predicted increased depressive symptoms the next day. However, this perceived social pressure was not predicted by prior feelings of depression. This provided evidence it was not that depressed people thought others expected them not to feel that way, but that this felt social pressure itself was contributing to symptoms of depression.

3. Elsewhere in the Times, Emily Esfahani Smith did her best to ratchet down those expectations with her column,  “You’ll Never Be Famous–And That’s OK”. As a counterbalance it’s right on the money, albeit, as all prescriptions go, “easier said than done” (a must listen PZP, btw!). But light does shine from the article in the form of a quote from Middlemarch, in which George Eliot describes the death-resurrection path of her protagonist Dorothea Brooke’s ambitions, or you might say, the difference between striving for greatness (deeds done so that they “may be seen by eyes of men”, AKA signalled!) and humble/humdrum acts of everyday goodness (hidden acts a la Matthew 6:5):

This is Eliot’s final word on Dorothea: “Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Reminded me of the wonderful story Sarah C passed on about the many unsung deeds carried out by the Cajun Navy in Houston last week.

4. Lastly on the college front, moral psychologist and Mbird fave Jonathan Haidt has been on something of a tear about all the rising loneliness/anxiety. He cautions against interpreting the data solely in terms of mental health. In fact, unlike Bruni, he sees the loneliness not as distinct from other trends on campus (and in society) but as an outgrowth of them. For example, the ideological polarization that’s been accelerated by social media cannot help but foster an “us vs them” mentality of ever-shrinking righteousness that doesn’t just divide but isolate. The same goes for semantics; filter-bubbles-slash-echo-chambers tend to give hot-button words ample room to expand, often (but not always!) in the direction of self-justification:

‘I’m very concerned about a phenomenon called “concept creep” – which has been happening to a lot of psychological terms since the 1990s’, [Haidt] says. ‘When a word like “violence” is allowed to creep so that it includes a lot of things that are not violence, then this causes a cascade of bad effects. It’s bad for the students themselves because they now perceive an idea that they dislike, or a speaker that they dislike, as having committed a much graver offense against themselves – which means that they will perceive more victimization of themselves. And it’s also really bad for society because, as we are seeing in a spectacular way in the United States this year, when each side can point to rampant occurrences of what they see as violence by the other side, this then justifies acts of actual physical violence on their side. And there’s no obvious end to this mutual escalation process.’…

In his forthcoming book Misguided Minds: How Three Bad Ideas Are Leading Young People, Universities, and Democracies Toward Failure, Haidt claims that certain ideas are impairing students’ chances of success. Those ideas being: your feelings are always right; what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; and the world is divided into good people and bad people.

That last phrase strikes me as particularly trenchant. I for one can’t wait for the book, especially since it appears to support my pre-existing conceptions, thereby leaving me on the exonerated (good!) side of the equation. Wait a second…

Oh and to read more about “concept creep”, namely, how it relates to the preaching of Jesus, click here.

5. Time for some laughs, eh? Somewhat related to items 1-4 (and the fruit of coercion), The Onion reports that “Former Conservative Recalls Belittling Tirade From College Student That Brought Him Over To Left”. Next, while not explicitly a humor piece, Alan Jacobs “How to Read Biblical Scholarship When You’re Not a Biblical Scholar” had me chuckling. So did Nietzsche’s Google Search History. But nothing this week made me laugh harder than the Huffpo’s account of an unbelievably excruciating and outrageously scatalogical first date. Some real grace in there too, ht SC.

Funniest thing I’ve seen all summer is the Pickle Rick episode of Rick and Morty. An acquired taste to say the least, but lordy bygordy, those writers are firing on all cylinders.

6. Also humor-related (sort of), The Guardian published a fascinating interview with English comedian/actor/provocateur Russell Brand, touching on his fervent devotion to the 12 Steps, which is also the subject of his new book, Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions. While I’m not sure I buy his rationalization vis-a-vis anonymity, the overall courage and conviction was enough to prompt a mailing of Grace in Addiction to his agent. Not too many celebrities interrupting their careers to pursue graduate degrees in religion, ht BPZ:

“There’s an ongoing sense that this [i.e., modern life] isn’t working. Really, I’d like to address the emotional and spiritual causes of dissatisfaction on a personal level…” Brand used to be a Buddhist; now, he believes in a higher power, and the [12] steps are his new faith.

“There was an important job that religion was doing,” he says, “but because [x, y, or z], we have, possibly quite rightly, rejected it. But the secularisation, the materialisation, the individualisation of the way we see the world now excludes us from a life that has meaning. And I don’t think pop culture can fill that gap any more. I don’t think art can do it any more. I think things are getting too serious. People need to be able to connect with something that is essential and beautiful and valuable and true.” For him, the 12-step programme “has the seeds in it, it has the code”. The meaning of life, the Big Idea.

7. While we’re on the subject of (formal) religious decline and its fallout, the Public Religion Research Institute just released their report on the 2016 American Values Atlas, AKA the single largest survey of American religious and denominational identity ever conducted. You can read the predictably sobering, if not particularly surprising, report here. Though it’s probably enough to simply peruse fourteen of the more significant findings. The basic breakdown looks like this:

8. In the glory-story department, maybe we won’t need Haidt’s book after all since, according to Jacob Silverman in The NY Times Magazine, no one fails anymore. They “pivot”. Touche:

The ‘‘pivot’’ has assumed a peculiar place in our common lexicon. A word once used to describe a guard angling for position on the basketball court is now in wide circulation in politics and business. That’s especially the case in Sili­con Valley, where pivoting has become the new failure, a concept to describe a haphazard, practically madcap form of iterative development. With its sheen of management-speak, pivoting is well suited to our moment. And like any act of public relations, pivoting is also a performance. A key part of the act is acknowledging that you are doing it while trying to recast the effort as something larger, more sophisticated, highly planned. The pivot, though it arises from desperation, is nevertheless supposed to appear methodical.

9. Finally, in music, it’s always a good week when you learn there’s a new Morrissey record on the way (bearing the characteristically great title, Low in High School). Some top-notch, and supremely entertaining, music writing in The New Yorker in Howard Fishman’s “The Shaggs Was Unsettling, Beautiful, Eerie, and Will Probably Never Happen Again”. The Quietus’ “Why Van Halen Are The Band The Velvets Could Only Dream Of Being” is pretty great too, ht RS. Of the two new U2 songs, I think I prefer “The Blackout” over “You’re the Best Thing About Me”, but neither matches “The Little Things That Give You Away”. I remain optimistic about Songs of Experience. Also, in the surprising covers department, Lorde recorded a fantastic version of The Replacements’ “Swingin Party” (above) and GNR paid tribute to Glen Campbell with a touching performance of “Wichita Lineman”:


  • Newly discovered Kurt Vonnegut short story in The Atlantic!
  • Super kind review/mention of our Law & Gospel book on Jason Micheli’s consistently terrific site, Tamed Cynic.
  • Twin Peaks: The Return sure set the interwebs humming with material! (Like much of Lynch’s work, I can’t say I “enjoyed” it, but I also couldn’t look away.) I’ve tried not to read too much of the commentary, esp since the series essentially trolls viewers looking to interpret, but I couldn’t resist clicking on Sean O’Neal’s reflection on the AV Club. Clayton Purdem’s explication of the show’s sound design is another worthy read. Only other thing I’ll say is that Episode 8 is without a doubt the riskiest and most avant-garde “episode of television” I’ve ever seen. That and the fact that Laura Dern never–ever–fails to impress.
  • Those venturing to the multiplex this weekend to take in the (excellent) new adaptation of Stephen King’s IT are encouraged to take a look at the CNN article on the subject from a couple years back which quoted liberally from a certain PZ .