A Cost of Privilege?

The most disturbing aspect of the latest mass shooting in Aurora, to me, is the fact that, on paper at least, James Holmes was a comparatively privileged young man… as were both of the Columbine High School shooters ten years ago. We’re not talking about poor oppressed minorities, but about young people who grew up in moderately affluent family situations.  In the case of Holmes, he was even an honor student at the University of California, Riverside, but he couldn’t get a job better than minimum wage, and he entered a doctoral program in neuroscience at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, where he struggled and then dropped out.  Somewhere around that time, he began to buy weapons and ammunition.

So why would a quiet young man from a comparatively privileged background commit such a terrible crime?  I’d submit that one of the key factors was precisely that background.

As I’ve expressed more than a few times, the continual expression of the Lake Wobegon theme [the place where all the children are above average] is not only false, but has been incredibly damaging to the younger generations.  Because they’re not all outstanding.  By definition, only a small percentage can be well above average, and the perks and privileges and jobs are going to go to that small percentage.  Even if a greater number of young people are brighter than their parents – which I doubt, but even if it is so – it doesn’t matter.  The positions at the top are limited.  They are in any society, and more education doesn’t mean better opportunities.  It means that college graduates essentially have the same opportunities as high school graduates had two to three generations earlier.

As noted by Joel I. Klein, the head of the New York City School system in 2010, “In 1950 high school dropouts made up 59% of the United States workforce, with just 8% represented by college graduates. As recently as 2005, these numbers have nearly reversed: 32% of workers have a college degree, while 8% are high school dropouts.”

This change in work-force composition has several ramifications.  First, an undergraduate college degree is likely not going to be the passport to a high paying job that it was in past generations. According to initial reports, that was one of the frustrations expressed by Holmes, that even with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience, he could only find McDonald’s level jobs.

In addition, the dumbing down of both high school and collegiate undergraduate curricula and requirements has resulted in an entire generation of young people, of whom only a tiny percentage have been truly tested, and who have been told time after time how special they are.  In general, they’ve been shielded from failure and told they’re wonderful. In essence, not until his mid-twenties did Holmes discover that he really wasn’t that special and that the world didn’t care. The fact that our culture also values “personality” over technical and subject matter excellence, no matter what anyone says, adds even more fuel to the fire for those who are bright and socially awkward, as Holmes was said to be.

The pattern manifested by Holmes – and others – is familiar to forensic psychologists.  While not all young people who are alienated, depressed, and angry are violent, it appears that almost universally the violent are alienated, depressed, and angry. In the case of Holmes and the Columbine killers, and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, it is highly likely that a key motivating factor is anger by those from a privileged background who couldn’t deal with failure and wanted to blame others for it. They believed they deserved more, and the fact that they hadn’t gotten what they wanted must have been the fault of others.  Hadn’t everyone told them how special they were?

Now… there will be years of study, and debate and counter-debate, but I’d be very surprised if anyone actually discusses the issues I’ve raised.  After all, how could we go wrong as a society by telling our wonderful children how special they are?


6 thoughts on “A Cost of Privilege?”

  1. Bain says:

    I have met many indivduals like “Holmes” who was always told by members of society that they are special. The bottom line is that, they truly do not have basic common sense and they feel that someone owed them. I truly believe we will see more of this destructive behavior in the future.

  2. Joe says:

    Accuracy matters: Ted Kaczynski was brilliant at math. That does not excuse his later behavior, but his later behavior doesn’t change his brilliance.

    Holmes’ behavior seemed quite erratic at his first court appearance. Since mental medication has many side-effects (paranoia, delusion, suicidal thoughts), I wonder whether this wasn’t a case of inadequate healthcare.

    More generally, we seem to worry more about aberrations than day-to-day death. According to the CDC there are around 100 deaths by gun per day in the US (suicides and homicides). There are 3000 deaths on the roads per month. 6 million children worldwide stare to death each year. We could prevent many of these deaths. Yet we pay attention to Holmes (12 deaths), 911 (3000 deaths) and the Holocaust (6 million Jews, 6 million others), which we can’t prevent. Indeed, more people die of bee stings than terrorism each year, yet we spend outrageous sums on airport “security”.

    1. Mayhem says:

      The focus on aberrations comes from two main sources.

      One is the media – sensation sells, so deviations from the norm are played up to maximise appeal.

      Second is that while humans as a species are relatively rational, humans as individuals are highly irrational, and very poor at judging and managing risks without special training. We are very good at identifying first order dangers like nearby lions but poor at spotting those second order or further removed, like poisons. We are poor at judging the difference between actual risk and perceived risk, hence the popular success of the Bungee Jump and Indoor Rock Climbing. And we are particularly bad at evaluating numbers properly, hence the idea of one being a tragedy and a million being a statistic…

      Here’s a nice article on how juries find crimes to be less severe if they affect *more* people. Counterintuition at its very best.

  3. Alan says:

    It has long been noted that today’s generation (mid nineties and on) is considered the ‘Me’ generation. With a great focus on how they are owed many things, entitled, etc. That no one is a failure, they are they next winner. And that there are no losers. A child can grow up to be anything.

    Certainly building self-esteem and encouraging your child to do well is to be applauded. Few people who succeed, weather they are brilliant or not, lack self-confidence and a strong self-image. But too much builds the afore noted complications.

    What I wanted to address, however, was the comments about education. The late 80’s a study was done by Berkeley to evaluate the performance of those with a degree, and those without. The study tracked everyone from the 8th grade drop out to the doctorial graduate. It was conducted over ten years and followed more than twenty thousand people across all demographics.

    As you can imagine, the findings are quite well analyzed. Broken out between income groups, race, sex, education levels, etc. So even with a group of more than twenty thousand it is likely to be a poor representative sample. However, accepting the overall results it was concluded thus: That a person with a bachelor degree would earn ~60% more per year, with corresponding lifetime success.

    Similar reviews agreed and this was forwarded to many high schools and colleges as part of the encouragement to build your education. The results are reflected in society, though not in a favorable fashion. The amount of college students has increased steadily. Parental or guidance push for higher education, individual desire and college advertisement for students are just some of the reasons.

    However the results that have come from this surge in higher education have not shown a corresponding increase in median income, nor overall education. Students who graduate with a bachelors frequently attended college merely to obtain a degree. The vaunted piece of paper is the goal, rather then the knowledge, skills and education associated with their major.

    Many firms I have spoken with as a recruiter prefer people with five to ten years experience in their field without any college education over a college educated new hire. The preference is for a work ethic, technical knowledge of the subject matter and an ability to learn.

    Too many college students lack all three.

  4. Wine Guy says:

    My parents are solidly middle class who expected me to work for my spending money, ridiculed little league teams that gave trophies to every participant, and place a higher value on hard work than on education since anyone can work hard but not everyone could afford an education (they both have Bachelors and Masters degrees). They were both born just as the Great Depression was ending and remember WW2 rationing.

    They never denied me anything, but they certainly made me work to get it. Dad, after being criticized for dismissing the idea of a soccer trophy for everyone on the team, said “If they earned it, it means something. If you’re just giving it to them, then it means nothing.”

    My own observations about the world confirm this and it is how I am raising my daughters. If they fail at goals they choose, it won’t be because of lack of effort. When they succeed, I will celebrate with them… and even now, they dislike being given something for free because they know there are usually strings attached.

  5. JakeB says:

    Mr. Modesitt’s observation reminded me also that it appears that most islamic terrorists come from a relatively privileged background: that they’re not the Fanonian wretched of the earth, but rather those that if you will have time to stew over things. It seems like a perverted version of the old idea that the reason that Ancient Greece reached the cultural heights it did was owing to its being the first society with a relatively large leisure class.

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