Students in my “Is America in Decline?” class shared some thoughtful, and varied, concerns about the future in their first assignment last week. While not a representative sample of Americans, or even all MU students because the class is disproportionately white male, their papers reflected widely discussed themes with several insights. Students were assigned to listen to family members or friends discuss their concerns and reactions to the alleged American decline. The assignment was intentionally vague and did not ask students to describe and rank their own concerns.
Most students wrote about the reaction of one family member, including lots of grandparents, and one similar-aged friend. A few students report that America is not in decline but rather in “turmoil” or “just stagnant,” but the overwhelming majority found some agreement with the oft-discussed idea that America is in decline. Several wrote that their relative or friend was “hesitant” or “dubious” to call it decline, but then they mentioned a problem or two anyway. One student wrote: “My grandfather does not believe that America is in decline; however, he was quick to point out that several cultural shifts have compromised our position as a world hyper-power.” Another said that his father “responded confidently that the decline of America is exaggerated in the media.”
Several students suggested that the U.S. is seeing the “rise of the rest,” not America’s absolute decline when we see high unemployment rates or slow economic growth.
About half the class specifically mentioned the economy, or economic uncertainty, with several reporting their parents are still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis and that siblings or friends have not been able to obtain the jobs they had planned for after graduation. Increasing technology and outsourcing were mentioned as causes.
Reflecting the wider public debate, many students mentioned debt, both public and private, as a major cause of America’s stagnating economy and loss of confidence in government. Several mentioned that private debt was a result of citizens not accepting responsibility for their current lifestyles. One student quoted her cousin: “We don’t think about our future anymore because we associate it with having to pay our debts,” and that “just as we do not save for our children, we do not teach them responsibility.”
Many students mentioned social or cultural values as a major aspect of any American decline. One student wrote that an aunt said “clearly our economy is not too great, but our attitude is even worse.” Another quoted a friend as saying “people aren’t willing to work hard because they know government will come to their aid.” Another student’s college friend thought that “we are sacrificing personal responsibility for the sake of social justice.” Several students wrote that the loss of religion was a major concern of their relatives and friends.
The loss of the American Dream was mentioned several times. One student’s father recalled that “the idea used to be that if you worked hard and did your best then there would be an opportunity for you in life,” but that now “there are many people who have done everything right and still have nothing to show for it.”
American K-12 education was a frequently mentioned concern with one student citing the fact that the U.S. recently dropped to No. 17 in the world.
One student reported that while her uncle thought claims of America’s decline are dubious, he thought the quality of education has been declining over the last three decades. That student wrote “while he would not come out and say it, my uncle seems to believe that the younger generation is less equipped to navigate our current economy and/or political system.”
Several students reported a concern that the media and entertainment have too much influence. One wrote “people allow outside influences (popular culture, mass media, proselytizing religion, Internet) to control themselves and their dependents.” Another student’s mother stated that voters are uninformed and recalled that when she was a kid, her family would sit down for dinner and talk about issues going on in the world. Instead, her mother observed that today people eat dinner on the coffee table watching TV.
Increased political polarization was also reported as a concern. Several students found that relatives specifically pointed at Congress with one writing more generally that “public officials have forgotten who they are working for and forgotten how to compromise.”
Interestingly, there was no mention of increased economic inequality, the aging of the population, crime and personal safety, and environmental and international problems.
Overall, the students’ relatives and friends generally reflect views heard across society nowadays. By the end of the semester, perhaps the students will share their own views and concerns about any American decline with their families and friends.
David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU where he is currently teaching a course on "Is America in Decline?" He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.