The “Undo” Buttons

One of the unspoken functions of parents and teachers with regard to their children and students is to guide them in ways that keep them from making huge mistakes that will forever blight their lives and their futures.  Despite the prevalence of laws and devices [such as seatbelts, automobile airbags, campaigns against drugs and underage drinking], both parents and teachers are at best losing ground slowly, and at worse losing it far faster.

Teenage pregnancies continue to abound; drug and alcohol abuse remain high; high school drop-out rates remain high; actual educational achievement is far lower than test scores indicate… the list of continuing and growing problems is far longer.

How did this all happen in a nation with the resources and wealth of the United States?

I’d be the first to admit that there’s no single “cause,” but I’ll also submit a causal factor that I don’t see any social or political entity addressing in a meaningful way or on a national scope.

It’s very basic.  In a national effort to motivate young people, our culture has either ignored or forgotten to teach them one fundamental truth: all actions have consequences, and the consequences of many actions are irreversible.

Oh… we tell them that all the time, but we undo the effect of the words by giving them “second chances,”  extra credit, do-overs, and the like.  Even our day-to-day technology undermines the law of consequences for young people.  Back a generation or so, if I made a typographic error on a paper, I either had to fiddle with White-Out or retype the entire page from scratch, if the error was bad enough.  And if you were using carbon paper to make copies, there was no choice.  You re-typed the entire page.  If there’s an error now, just back-space, or use the mouse or the appropriate key-strokes to click “undo.”

Intellectual property theft or misappropriation [otherwise known as plagiarism] used to be automatic grounds for academic dismissal.  Now, in many institutions, the punishment is failure on that paper, if that, and a do-over.

My wife the professor sees college student after college student who, after getting a bad grade – or missing a test – wants to know what they can do to make things up or get a better grade, looking for an “undo” button in life.  She can’t count the number of students who ignore their advisor’s advice about the classes they need to take to graduate… and then complain that they’ll have to spend another year or two to get their degree [because in our higher educational system, faculty can’t insist on a student taking a particular course, even required ones; they can only keep them from taking higher level courses or withhold degrees for failing to meet requirements].  The thought that there are consequences for failure is almost beyond many students.  And, then, when this does happen, they all want an exception because their situation is “special.”

Back in the bad old days, when I was in college, if you were an able-bodied male, there was a definite consequence for failure – being drafted and sent to Southeast Asia – and almost no one was “special.”

This failure to understand consequences goes far beyond classes.  There are consequences to using a cell phone or texting while driving.  Despite the fact that thousands of teens are injured or killed as a result of inappropriate cellphone and IPod use, the deaths go on. And that, to me, is entirely understandable, because we as a society have inadvertently taught them that everything bad can be “undone.”

And most of them believe that, at least on a subconscious level, until they’re confronted with a situation that can’t be undone… and by then it’s usually too late.


14 thoughts on “The “Undo” Buttons”

  1. Poodlehorde says:

    A classic example I run across daily as a credit card advisor is the customer who misses a payment deadline- often because they were on vacation – and expects the resulting penalties to be waived. Some of them can get downright unpleasant – and why they think they can influence someone to do them a favor by being unpleasant is beyond me – when you tell them that being on vacation does not excuse them from making their credit card payment

  2. Kathryn says:

    I think the issue goes beyond a simple “Undo” button, Mr Modesitt, and you could easily extrapolate it to a lack of responsibility.

    I’ve recently left a job in an English university, and I found the attitude of many students to be utterly reprehensible. My job involved selling binding materials to the students so they could put their dissertations, theses, etc. together into a sort of book so that they could hand it in to their lecturers. Sometimes the lecturers would ask for specific types of binding, and the students would be expected to have those kinds regardless of the cost, the size of their work and so forth, but whichever way they were to do it, it was something they had to do themselves. We didn’t do it for them, nor did we offer that service.

    Many times did we have students come with no idea which kind they’d been asked to have, a good number asked me to do it for them, more than a handful didn’t have the basic level of English to communicate properly and you get the idea. There are a few Libyan students at the university, and more than once I saw them have delay slips which quoted “Political Problems at Home”, and I had to scratch my head. I knew what was going on in Libya, but I failed to see why it formed a valid reason for a student – living in the UK – to delay handing in their work. They’re over here, not there. Maybe I’m being insensitive, but I was still confused as to why it was used as a reason for a delay.

    But to continue with the student theme, I encountered a lot who felt no responsibility. They’d come as we were closing up to buy the materials they needed two hours ago. They’d come five minutes before hand in with a 200 page document. What was worrying for me is that some of these students were doing medical sciences. These are the people who aim to be looking after my generation’s children, yet they can’t even structure their time to be even halfway efficient. It’s mindboggling.

    It also extends to our long-term unemployed. Teens and young adults (Even older adults, too) feel like they have no responsibility to themselves, to their family, to their country to get a job. I know it’s hard at the moment, I’m feeling that myself, but so many people abuse the system by living off benefits intended for those seeking work (It’s called Job Seeker’s Allowance for a reason).

    I’m not sure about the point referring to computers though. I think that for every mistake they cover up, they make others visible. A spellcheck isn’t going to pick up on someone who has used “their” when they mean “there”, or someone who has mistyped “the cat jumped over the cow” as “the hat jumper over the bow”, or even someone who has done the unspeakable and misused and apostrophe. By relying on things like a spellcheck, people open themselves up to other problems. If nothing is underlined in red, then everything must be OK, right?

    I want an undo button, because I want to undo some choices I’ve made. I’ve lived with the consequences, and the mental turmoil, and I honestly wish I could have changed some of the things I’ve done. But I can’t, and I have to live with it, just as we all do when we make mistakes or errors of judgement.

    Sorry if I rambled a bit.

  3. One of your last points is the strongest, when you point out say that we all have made mistakes… and that we have to live with them. Far too many members of the younger generation fail even to recognize that they have made mistakes, and when those mistakes are pointed out, they’re outraged that they just might have to live with the consequences… and too many of them do in fact insist that there must be an “undo” button of some sort.

  4. Kathryn says:

    I agree. The people I’ve dealt with in situations like that rarely become polite, instead turning to either pestering you or, as Poodlehorde mentioned above, by becoming confrontational.

    It’s very worrying that people lack the responsibility to do things reasonably and under their own steam. I won’t lie by pretending I’m the most motivated person because I’m truly not, and I wrestle with myself over it almost daily, but I hate seeing it in others, especially those who are in institutions like universities where they’re partially self-funding and partially funded by the taxpayer (Although that mostly changes as of this year), because we’re supporting them in a worthy pursuit, but they’re not pulling their weight.

    We all screw up, it’s only human to do so. It’s recognising where we’ve made mistakes and acting on them to try and minimise the damage where we can succeed. It shouldn’t be a huge amount of effort to admit you’re wrong, because we’re all wrong on a daily basis. It’s worse to spend that time and effort wanting to undo what you’ve done, or wishing that someone would do it for you.

  5. Well you have what we call “curling children”
    The parents have made sure that for ever “have a nice day”
    They must meet challenges in life
    It´s called Reggio Emilia

  6. Mayhem says:

    An interesting thing though, is that one of the key points that define Maturity is understanding the concepts of consequences.

    Your average small child has no concept of time other than ‘then’, ‘now’ and ‘soon’. They have no concept of cause and effect, only of action and inaction.
    As children mature, they slowly learn (or are taught) the idea of indirect results, and unintended consequences.
    What the modern era has really done is abstract away many of the early life lessons that used to forcibly teach this, and replace it with conceptual lessons that many simply do not understand, and certainly don’t want to learn.
    An analogy would be child climbs tree, falls out, breaks arm. This teaches the concept of ‘natural limitations’, generally along with ‘loading limits’ and definitely ‘forces outside your control’ (gravity!). Today however, many children grow up in a relatively tame, sedentary lifestyle. Their playgrounds are optimised to provide the minimum possible risk of damage, lest the caregiver be sued. Ground cover is flexible and sharp edges non-existent. This all combines to remove any chance of a child learning a short hard lesson that at that age, is often the only teacher. Kids growing up with video games treat failure as a temporary setback, all you need is to reload from last save and away you go. Modern games even provide numerous save points, there is no longer a market for the old style ‘Nintendo hard’ game where one death means start again from the beginning, and success provided a real sense of accomplishment for those that could.

    Extrapolate from that to 5-10 years later, and it is really no wonder that many high school or university students don’t appreciate hard consequences – it is simply something they’ve never had to deal with up till then. I graduated at the end of the nineties, so was a bit ahead of the curve, but still vividly remember the point when I first got made redundant a few years later at the age of 23, and had the crushing realisation that really, at the end of the day, HR works for the company, not you, and that the Company is *not* your friend. Again, a short sharp shock, a ‘life lesson’, which had lasting repercussions. Many of my friends from university never had any issues, and it is amazing how some still expect success to be handed to them.

  7. Kyle says:

    Mr. Modesitt,
    I am the father of 2 young boys, one only recently born, the other 2 years old. My wife and I have an indoor cat, and have faced conversations with most of our family and friends about our decision not to remover her claws. Our thinking is that when our children are old enough to torment her, they will be old enough to understand that pain generally follows their more aggressive behavior. We tell those who ask that it’s an early lesson in consequences.
    In another vein, studies have shown that people who use cash as payment for given transactions experience certain physiological responses to the loss of their money, and that these responses resemble those that occur when we experience pain. Interestingly, when these same people use debit cards, their response is diminished. The same is true, to an even greater degree, for those using credit cards. The point being that the convenience of electronic payment circumvents the ‘pain’ we feel when we spend cash, pain at having less of some tangible thing than we had before.
    Errors of many types are painful, in some sense of that word. Current cultural opinion, it would seem, has decided that pain is an evil to be removed whenever possible. Hence the ‘second chances’ built into or assumed of our institutions.
    Not all suffering, or pain, is an evil. But this truth is not self-evident. Certainly it is part of the wisdom tradition of the West – one can find it in the Greeks and the Romans, Christian theologians, English dramatists (B. Johnson and Shakespeare) all the way through the modern period into present time.
    To the extent that our culture is disconnected from the writings (ideas) or our forbears, our culture will have to learn anew the lessons they’ve set down for our instruction.

    1. Kathryn says:

      Sorry to go on a tangent here, but isn’t declawing cats actually illegal in most “civilized” countries? I know the prevalence of the law is rather spotty in the US, but I thought it was generally not an acceptable thing to do?

      There we go, another example of a lack of undo button. If it caused suffering and a degraded life quality for the cat, surely it would also extend to your family to see the cat in pain and suffering? It would be a potential consequence of that operation, and one you couldn’t undo.

  8. Noah says:

    Mr. Modesitt
    As a Sophomore in college I see first hand on a every day basis the lack of care and belief as well as the utter disrespect toward the responsibility that being in college demands. Most of them will stay up late doing whatever they please and then decide to stay up later or pull all nighters to write a paper or report that barely deserve a professors glance. They have no qualms in doing this and will even choose to not even do some of the assignments because they feel like they can skip these assignments and still get a passing grade. This utter lack of responsibility disturbs me for my own generation. The amount of students who do this is too large.

    In regards to the consequences of non academic matters look at MTV who has said that they own my generation because what ever they show and whatever they do my generation follows. Their ever popular Teen Moms, and 16 and Pregnant shows have been raging successes. These shows have not dissuaded teen girls from getting pregnant but have caused girls to seek it in hopes of getting on these shows and having a life of… what? fame? it promotes bad choices with no regard to consequences. The consequences of their actions means nothing because they are caught up in wanting to be the next ‘Teen Mom’ What about all of those young girls who do not get on the show? They have to live with their choice.

    I am rather afraid of what the world will be like when my generation has taken over as the next doctors, businessmen, politicians, scientists, even writers.

  9. Alison Hamway says:

    To what extent is our US financial crisis due to the underlying message of do-overs? — that message being MY individual success is all that matters, and everything will be able to be fixed by the “undo” button. The bankers and mortgage brokers got caught in the message of “personal success above all”; others applied for homes they could not afford, and we are all paying the price. Our Congress is serving as role models for exactly the wrong behaviors — all they seem to care about is “do I personnally win? Does my party win?” instead of fixing the crisis that they helped create by undoing reasonable regulations that had worked for years.

  10. Hi
    I own four preeschools in Sweden with 300 children1-5 years old and our policy is Reggio Emilia philosofi Its all about give the children challenges but not two much at first

  11. Nate Awrich says:

    How do we distinguish between the “Kids these days!” anguish of the older generations and actual, substantial observation of real generational decline? It’s the oldest cliche for parents to lament the declining morals and work ethic of their childrens’ cohort, and even moreso their children’s children.

    Technology has had such a dramatic impact on society that each new generation is essentially born into a different culture than their parents, and just in American history you can see the impact of that repeated culture shock.

    However, at the same time that baby boomers and the Greatest Generation deride the “Me” generation as self-involved and sheltered, the “Me” generation is looking forward to a long period of socioeconomic decline achieved by the denial and greed of their parents and grandparents. Rarely do you hear that as a condemnation of a whole generation, but why not?

    I think that even adults with children born in the 80s and 90s are as unable to comprehend the peculiar demands of life for them as were WW2 veterans with flower power kids. Each generation has its flaws, foibles and afflictions. Social evolution means that the flaws of youth may be unrecognizable to the wizened, which perhaps leads them to be mistaken as more severe when they are not.

    Lastly – I’d argue some of your specific points. I think teen pregnancy is at historic lows, as is drug addiction in general (particularly nicotine). Deaths in traffic accidents are also down (increased in absolute terms but decreased in proportion), if I remember correctly, and I’d challenge you to provide evidence for the assertion that thousands of young people are dying in cars because of texting.

  12. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, 16,000 people died between 2002 and 2005 as a result of cell phone/texting-caused accidents. The teen pregnancy rate in the United States is the highest in the developed world and after gradually declining in the years before 2009 increased markedly in 2010.

  13. Nate Awrich says:

    That’s an interesting study. The authors didn’t find data that specifically addressed the cause of distracted driving; instead they used multivariate regression to correlate large increases in distracted driving fatalities with large increases in cell phone and text usage. It also didn’t break out the age groups involved. Not as robust as having a more granular analysis of fatal accident reports, but certainly interesting anyway.

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