education philosopher

What Crossing the Street Says About a Person

Posted in Self-esteem movement by KevinCK on October 26, 2009

One of the things that never fails to drive me crazy when walking around the University of Delaware’s campus is the crosswalks. At most crosswalks, cars yield to pedestrians and pedestrians need not stop for cars or wait for lights.

What drives me crazy is not the principle of this but how it works in practice. Students generally walk out in the road without looking, take their time in crossing the street, do not wave to cars for letting them through, and do not ever allow cars to go before them (no matter how long the car has been waiting while previous students crossed).

I have even witnessed several occasions where students exhibit a very “entitled” mentality through all of this. I’ve witnessed, for instance, two separate occasions where students doddling across the street were preventing a car from making a needed right turn. The cars honked after a certain amount of time, only to be greeted by the student’s sternly held-up middle-finger. How dare a car be angry while slow-moving students hold them up for ridiculous periods!

As a former schoolteacher, this really irks me because it exhibits something I found quite often in my high-schoolers: an entitlement attitude. There have been many a book published about the rising narcissism and “self-esteem” of youth: each generation seeming to outdo the last. (See the two books by Jean Twenge or psychologist Young-Eisendrath’s Self-Esteem Trap.) Teachers and others complain that kids are often self-absorbed and with new technologies giving rise to and encouraging self-advertisement (think myspace, youtube, facebook, etc.), the complaint is that we are raising a generation that think much more about themselves than others.

Now, studies are conflicted on whether narcissism has increased amongst the current generation. An interesting study here has an abstract which says:

The present study explores the relation between narcissism and delinquency among 372 at-risk 16–18-year-olds. The study also considered the relation between narcissism and self-esteem, as well as the potential interaction between narcissism and self-esteem for predicting delinquency in this age group. Narcissism and self-esteem were positively interrelated; however, only narcissism was significantly correlated with delinquency. The results suggested that low self-esteem was actually associated with delinquency when controlling for narcissism. So-called adaptive narcissism was positively correlated with self-esteem, but maladaptive narcissism was not related to self-esteem. Limitations and directions for future research in this area are discussed.

Now, this study suggests, first, that self-esteem and narcissism are positively correlated, but that only narcissism (not self-esteem) correlated with delinquency. I think this is a matter of definition, because when one defines, as this study does, narcissism by including the criterion of “maladaptive” to it, one makes this correlation true by definition. In other words, if one of the indicators of narcissism is that one has delinquent thoughts and behaviors, then one defines narcissism so that it correlates with delinquency.

But, all of that aside, let’s get back to crossing the street. The way I (and many other older folks I’ve observed at these crosswalks) cross the street is that we look to see whether cars are coming, wait for a car to stop, wave at the car to thank them, and walk quickly across the street. It is obvious that, by this method, the car is doing a courtesy for the pedestrian and the pedestrian is trying to acknowledge and make it easier on the car doing the favor. Nothing is expected of the other party except that they do what they do while doing a favor to the other.

The way students do it is wholly different and, I think, uses a wholly different mindset. The student does not look to see if a car is coming, crosses the street, does not acknowledge the waiting car, and does not bother to walk quickly so that the car may go. The interaction is entirely legalistic: the car stops because it has to, and the pedestrian goes at whatever pace because she can. The pedestrian does not see the car as doing a favor because the pedestrian does not have to: she has a right!

If I had a child, I sure would not raise them to think this way, and I would reprimand them if they acted this way. I would point out to them that just as they have somewhere they want to be, so does the car and that they are on equal footing with the car: no more or less important. When it is pointed out to me (in clever retort accompanied by an eye-roll, I’m sure) that “I have a right to cross there!” I would not deny it. I would, rather, point out what many young people today seem to miss: a right does not free you from exercising courtesy and seeing your right as trumping the comfort and rights of others. Just because you CAN say anything you’d like without censor does not mean that you should use expletive in public (a habit I find annoying, even though I take no offense to expletives). Just because I have the right to cross the street at x point does not mean that I should ignore the cars letting me through and inconvenience them.

At the risk of sounding like a conservative prig, I cannot see any other explanation for the very present trend of students crossing the street without so much as acknowledging the cars stopping for them. The only thing that can cause this type of ignorance is a self-absorbtion that renders them either oblivious of or indifferent to the cars who are letting them through. I hope that I am wrong, but I really do feel that the way one crosses the street says something about your attitude toward others.

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