Jonah Goldberg

A horrendous national shortage gripped America in the 1970s. The forces of progress rallied the American people to, in a spirit of shared purpose, combat our collective need. The leader of this movement donned a sweater and went on TV to lift the nation from its malaise.

Jimmy Carter and the energy crisis? Feh. That was nothing compared to the more acute scarcity that plagued America in those dark days. I'm referring, of course, to the '70s self-esteem famine, during which cardigan-sporting Fred Rogers heroically served as a Jimmy Carter for the preschool set.

These investments in self-esteem paid off royally, according to a report, "Egos Inflating Over Time." Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and a team of psychologists combed through the answers of 16,475 college students nationwide who took the Narcissistic Personality Inventory survey between 1982 and 2006. Their conclusion: Today's American youth are the most self-absorbed since we've studied the subject. "We need to stop endlessly repeating, You're special,' and having children repeat that back," Twenge told the Associated Press. "Kids are self-centered enough already."

It seems to be a distinctly American problem. Immigrant kids are less likely, for instance, to see good grades and high compliments as a birthright.

Don Chance, a finance professor at Louisiana State University, recently told the Wall Street Journal that Asian-born students don't argue about every bad grade. They respond to such esteem-deflating feedback by working harder.

I suspect that Twenge and Chance are largely right, but the hand-wringing about youth's sense of entitlement can go overboard. Volunteerism is on the rise, not something you would necessarily expect even after discounting for the desire to pad transcripts and resumes. The best of our supposedly pampered young men seem more than able to adjust to the culture of self-sacrifice animating our armed forces.

Nonetheless, what I find fascinating is how our narcissism surplus, to some extent, is the unintended consequence of trying to use psychology as just another branch of public health. Saturday-morning cartoons during my youth were peppered with public service announcements informing kids that, "The most important person in the whole wide world is you." The long-running TV show "Wonderama" became "Kids Are People Too" to reflect a new seriousness of childhood. The burgeoning "children's rights" movement - to which a young Hillary Clinton was connected - saw treating kids as peers to be of a piece with the new egalitarianism. Movies as diverse as "Taxi Driver," "Bugsy Malone" and "Irreconcilable Differences" fixated on treating kids like adults in one way or another.

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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