The University of Chicago’s dean of Students made headlines this week with the letter he sent to new students there. The letter outlines the school’s commitment to academic freedom, and Dr. Ellison, the dean, lays out what this means for students. It means that they should not expect the creation of “safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” It also means that they should not expect the University to cancel invited speakers because of perceived controversy.
The letter illustrates a larger struggle to figure out how to educate the generation that has been most impacted by the social media revolution. This new generation has increasingly flexed its muscles as it has realized the strength of social media campaigns and how quickly they can target, terrify, and make administrators bow to their demands.
As schools are trying to come to grips with how they should handle these types of situations, it is becoming increasingly clear from the business world that the most important and vital set of skills lacking in the marketplace right now are soft skills. The Wall Street Journal featured another article about this subject, noting that in their own survey of 900 executives, eighty-nine percent said they struggled to find people with the requisite soft skills necessary to do the job. As technical jobs become outsourced or automated, companies are looking for employees who can, in the words of one business owner in the article, employ “common sense.”
Here is the troubling part, however. Sherry Turkle’s recent book Reclaiming Conversation highlights recent studies that have suggested that empathy levels among college students now are close to forty percent lower than they were just two decades ago. Students have spent an increasing amount of time looking at screens rather than interacting face-to-face and thus are not as adept at picking up the complexities of nonverbal communication. Turkle also notes a study that shows a decline in the attachment levels of college students, revealing the common struggle to have healthy friendships and relationships.
The decline in empathy and the struggle with figuring out how to build relationships is not a good sign for a world that increasingly needs the soft skills of leadership more than ever. These skills—knowing how to communicate well in person, thinking critically while also being open to others’ ideas, and being able to be organized and punctual—are being diminished by over-exposure to screens at an increasingly early age.
This problem of needing soft-skilled leaders in a relationally undeveloped society will only get worse as technology and screens become more ubiquitous and unquestioned in our culture. This isn’t the article to argue that we should do away with technology or that there is something inherently wrong with screens. It is simply to point out that our culture, already one of excess, has a problem knowing how to manage the amount of exposure to give its younger generations.
One of the most heartening and encouraging to remember, though, is that the gospel gives a potent and powerful remedy, as it always does, for what ails our culture in this regard. Hebrews 10:25 reminds us to not neglect getting together face-to-face, because we need to encourage and spur one another on in our faith. Acts 2:42 tells us about how the early church devoted themselves to spending time together. The biblical idea of community is not a nebulous, esoteric ideal; it is the reality of spending time together with other Christians, warts and all, and learning to love each other in Christ.
The biggest challenge facing the next generation of leaders is the increasing lack of relational soft skills, but the gospel points to a vision of life where we are encouraged to grow together by spending time face-to-face with others. In a culture that will continue to struggle in this way, the church can be a place where an alternative way is embodied, and where leaders of the future can learn how to serve the world in and through Christ.