In recent years, some clinical psychologists have debated the rise of narcissism in American college-age students. A May 2010 survey by researchers at the University of Michigan revealed that the level of empathy in college students has dropped 40 percent since 2000. In this context, empathy can be defined as a sensitivity or awareness of the thoughts and experiences of others.  Boston University research professor Peter Gray supports the findings of the 2010 survey in his 2014 article for Psychology Today. In his article, Gray blames what he calls “the self-esteem” movement of the 1980s. This refers to teaching practices based on positive affirmation and the idea that students respond much better to positive behavioral management practices than they do to negative ones. An Oct. 10 article by the Association of Psychological Science rebuts the rise of narcissism with a new study that reveals that college-age students are actually slightly less narcissistic than their counterparts were in the 1990s. This study rules that there is no compelling evidence that recent generations are more narcissistic than previous ones. Narcissism was understood as a point of view limited almost exclusively to one’s own needs, thoughts and experiences. The researchers identified specific aspects of narcissism, such as leadership, vanity and entitlement, and saw a similar downward trend in each of these traits between 1992 and 2015. Logically, narcissism and empathy have an inverse relationship: An increase in either leads to a reduction in the other. Individualism is not the same as  narcissism. Individualism relates to narcissism in that too much emphasis of the former can lead to the development of the latter. Hence, being individualist doesn’t necessarily mean one lacks empathy. 

Regardless of oscillation in opinion on this matter, the debate warrants a consideration of how college campuses are promoting individualism in their students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, college enrollment is on the rise with an increase of 17 percent from 2004 to 2014. This means that competition has become so much fiercer as grades aren’t the sole arbiters of student success. Educators and parents alike are encouraging students to differentiate themselves in more ways than just academic performance. This has seen to the rise of the focus on the individual, a moral stance that emphasizes the values of personal independence and self-reliance. Individualism can also be thought of as the precedence of the worth of the individual over the general community. In theory, individualism sounds — if not benign — ideal for helping college-age students prepare for the outside world. When compared to other systems of education — systems that place a more collectivist approach to learning and living — some of the shortfalls of individualism become apparent. And how is it exactly, one may ask, that these ills manifest themselves?

On comparatively liberal college campuses, like Brandeis University, students have a greater degree of freedom to express themselves. Students’ individualist attitudes are expressed through actions such as wearing pajamas to classes or standing up to take pictures of a professor’s work on the chalkboard; it’s very important to have a strong sense of self in order to not place much emphasis on others’ opinion of you. However, it is also important to consider how your individual expression affects the wellbeing of your community. For instance, wearing your pajamas to class; A professor may have been up since 5 a.m. preparing class materials; How is he or she supposed to reconcile your individual expression with your regard for his or her class? And with the example of taking pictures of a professor’s writing on the board: is this not disrupting the learning of other students?

Universities must prepare their students for not only post-graduate life in the work force, but also a life of exemplary citizenship in the greater, outside world. To this end, exemplary citizenship in the outside world would be a citizenship characterized by the consideration of the welfare of others. For example, a Brandeis student graduates and gets a dog. Inasmuch as the student feels uncomfortable leashing their animal when not necessary (they have a right not to as the dog belongs to them) they should consider the safety and comfort of everyone in communal spaces. In places like these, the Brandeis student would have to compromise their individual unleashing of their dog so as to make sure that other people are comfortable. Universities can begin balancing their idea of individualism with that of collectivism. Collectivism is a moral stance that emphasizes the interests of the group over those of the individual. A hybrid of individualism and collectivism not only teaches students to think about exercising their freedom but also challenges them to think about the point at which expressing their individuality could be harmful to others.

Teaching practices that hybridize both collectivism and individualism are also important for creating a more welcoming community for international students. This is important because their presence is quickly increasing on a range of campuses. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey revealed that the United States has experienced a 71 percent increase in international students from 1999 to 2013. The majority of these students come from countries with collectivist cultures, like China and India. Therefore, coming from a collectivist culture to transitioning into an individualist one can cause unpleasant experiences like culture shock. In this particular instance, it doesn’t at all mean that American students should compromise their culture for the benefit of outsiders like international students. What it does mean, however, is that American students should be more aware of other cultures and their collectivist approaches to living. Knowing this would help smooth international students’ settling into both their campus and the United States. An apt example of this is an international student who feels uncomfortable with the stench of marijuana in her residence hall. They might be from a country with a collectivist culture, and it might bother them that the American students in their hall disregard the preferences of other residents by not even being aware of them. 

George Monbiot, in an Oct. 12, 2016 article for the Guardian, asserts that the individualist element of self-interest creates loneliness. There are numerous studies that suggest a strong link between individualism and loneliness, like the January 2017 paper, “The rise of living alone and loneliness in history,” published in Social History. The results of feeling isolated in a large community like Brandeis could contribute to mental health problems like depression. Loneliness can arise from individualism because in societies where it is apparent, there isn’t an emphasis on interpersonal relationships. Loneliness makes it easier to withdraw from society. According to a Sept. 2  New York Times article, Frank Bruni reports that loneliness on college campuses is on the rise. 

Colleges should reconsider their individualist-oriented teaching practices so as to help their students take better care of not only their communities but also themselves.