As someone who has taught writing to college freshmen for the past nine years, I can safely say that today’s 18-25-year-olds are less respectful than they were a few years ago. It’s unfortunate, but true. And I’m not the only one to assert this. Ask any professor who has taught for longer than two years, and he or she will tell you that today’s college students, while bright and wonderful, are also full of a sense of entitlement. When I was a college student, many years ago, I never dreamed of questioning a grade or a teacher. Now it is such a common occurrence that I have to put special instructions in my syllabus for the proper way to dispute a grade—otherwise I’ll get nasty emails full of disrespect and disbelief. I’ve even had a student tell me that he’s emailed his paper to every other English teacher in the department because their assessment of his paper surely would be better than mine. I think he’s still waiting to hear back from them.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love our young college students. They really are bright and wonderful, and if I didn’t like them I would not have been a teacher for as long as I have. Yet, it really seems to be a growing problem in our society, this sense of entitlement, this disrespect for authority. What is to be done? What is causing this in the first place, you ask. Some might think it is due to the reckless distribution of candy by well-meaning businesses and parents. Come on, let’s please not drag the good name of candy through the mud, especially not while Hershey’s candy coated milk chocolate eggs are available, which is basically what I live for during the month of March.
Others may blame the lax rules of social interaction through email, texting, facebook, and so forth. This is certainly something that needs to be addressed—perhaps through a required email etiquette class. But I think the problem is deeper than this.
Does the problem arise from laissez-fair parenting, or too much television, video games, or lying on the couch? Maybe, but if you really want to blame someone for our disrespectful youth, there is only one absolute monster to which we must point the finger: Elmo.
That’s right: Elmo. Not even a true Muppet heir, Elmo came on the “Sesame Street” scene in 1984, when some puppeteer (who was not Jim Henson) was messing around on the set. Since then Elmo’s insidious baby-talking personality has taken over the beloved show. Did you know that half of “Sesame Street” is now devoted to a segment called “Elmo’s World”? Characters with a true sense of ironic humor, like Oscar, Grover, and Cookie Monster are relegated to the status of second class puppets to make way for a monster that colors on the walls, lives in his own world, and refers to himself in the third person. No wonder our kids think the world revolves around them! No wonder that by the time they reach college, they think that anything goes! Jim Henson is probably rolling over in his grave.
Elmo represents the dumbing-down of children’s television programming across the board. In my mind, he’s the precursor to such down-talking characters as Barney the dinosaur, and Caillou, the inexplicably bald four-year-old who models throwing tantrums and whining to get one’s way on a regular basis.
But how can sweet little innocent Elmo be blamed for anything? Let me elaborate: Elmo has his own world, and seemingly answers to no one. There is no parent to obey and listen to, no teacher to learn from. In fact, he does all the teaching, especially when he watches a Charlie Chaplin-esque character named Mr. Noodle try to do something like put his shoes on the right feet. “The other foot, Mr. Noodle,” Elmo shouts in a shrill voice. So the only adult in Elmo’s World is a fool who can’t even dress himself. This is supposed to be funny?
Elmo is so totally uncreative, from his ideas of what’s funny to his incessant singing of the same mind-numbing tune. Maybe he does mirror what normal three-year-olds do, but shouldn’t we be showing our three-year-olds examples of what they may become? Shouldn’t we be encouraging them to aim high, rather than just showing them that obnoxiousness is great? At least we should try to develop a sense of irony in our children by showing them extreme examples of what not to do, like Cookie Monster and Oscar. Kids see Cookie Monster O.D. on cookies, and they think it’s hilarious. They don’t think “hmm, maybe I should eat too many cookies too.” Give them some credit, for heaven’s sake! Elmo doesn’t send overtly bad messages, but he sends a message of self-centeredness and mediocrity. He doesn’t allow kids to come to their own conclusions and think for themselves. Instead Elmo just baby-talks to his goldfish named Dorothy and talks down to the poor, hapless Mr. Noodle.
What started out as a cute non-essential character on “Sesame Street” has exploded into a dangerous phenomenon of rewarding mediocrity, and that is what has me worried.
Because he is “cute,” Elmo has been rewarded with guest appearances on shows like “Martha Stewart Living,” “Emeril Live,” and “The West Wing.” He’s even testified before congress. Why? Because . . . well . . . he’s just so cute. Gag. This is why our kids think they are entitled to an A even if they do no work. And while our students are cute, and wonderful, and good, and smart, they still have to do a little work. They still have to take a little instruction. I am tired of being the Mr. Noodle to a class full of twenty Elmos! Has Elmo ever stopped to think that maybe Mr. Noodle has something to teach him?
This problem is only going to get worse, but maybe after it gets worse, it will get better. I look forward to the day when we will have enormous “Tickle Me Elmo” bonfires in our town squares. The banning of all Elmo paraphernalia may be a long way off, but a girl can dream. Until then, parents, I implore you to think twice before you let your children enter “Elmo’s World.” They may never be the same again.