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stefan hermann

Stefan Hermann: "Demanding to feel good is a totalitarian thought"

15. Jun 2023

Becoming a human being is more than becoming the person you want to be, says the Rector of University College Copenhagen, Stefan Hermann. He argues that for young people to thrive, they need to learn moderation, while the adults around them need to act more like responsible role models

Long reads

On May 31, we launched our mission, ‘A Future where Young People Thrive,’ to design a future for a thriving youth. This interview is the third in a series of conversations where we’ll explore key themes, new ideas, and perspectives on mental health and well-being among young people.

Read the first interview with Anna Asghari and the second with Anna Juul and Sara Kærn Linstow here.

By Ulla Dubgaard

It’s a fact that the increasing statistics for anxiety, stress, and depression among young people are a cause for concern all over the globe. In the US, leading experts in pediatric health have issued an urgent warning declaring the mental health crisis among children and young people so dire that it has become a national emergency. In Denmark, politicians launch emergency plans, reforms, and initiatives to counter the negative spiral. Still, none of it seems to affect the reality young people are experiencing, and the negative curves continue to soar. Rector of University College Copenhagen, Stefan Hermann, has been a critical voice in the debate around mental well-being among young people for years, and he has one clear message: We can’t solve the issue if we don’t understand it.

The pressure of thriving

The numbers for unhappiness among you people are too alarmistic. What does it mean when a young person checks a box saying they’ve been stressed within the last week? What do they understand that word to mean? We’re so busy making emergency plans and allocating more funds, but we need to understand the problem first.” says Stefan Hermann. He believes that a significant part of the problem is the changed role adults – from the parents to the teachers and coaches – have chosen to play in young people’s lives.

“Adolescence has always been an issue. What’s changed is that we (adults, ed.) keep asking how they feel, and we want them to feel good.  We’re constantly telling them to thrive and to make choices. Choose your friends, choose to perform well at school, choose who to be. Just do it as the ad says. We have put the emphasis on the parental and pedagogical relationship on emotions rather than on guidance and moral values. We’re missing the cultural part of our role in the mental health equation.”

Has adolescence always been “an issue,” as you say, or is that a term we’ve only recently started to use?

“Adolescence is consolidated as a term and a as phase of life with its own culture and rituals after World War II. Until then, broadly speaking, the confirmation was the transition from childhood to adult life. What’s changed is the psychologization of the issue of adolescence. In the 60s and 70s, it was about avoiding crime and making normal life habits. It’s an almost psychiatric issue today because young people mirror themselves in diagnoses and live in a hyper-communicative reality. Nearly all young people are fluent in self-diagnoses. They even form communities around it.”

"Adults keep asking young people how they feel, and we want them to feel good"

Stefan Hermann

Be a leader, not a friend

Studies show a delay in traditional adult activities such as working outside the home, having sex, driving, leaving home without their parents, etc., happens later than in previous generations. Are we prolonging childhood while simultaneously imposing very adult choices on adolescents? Is that part of the issue?

“Not so much prolonging childhood as expanding adolescence. Yes, young people have their sexual debuts later, but they are exposed to sexualization much earlier, and it’s not liberating but porn-filled and shameful. We can’t show vacation pictures with naked children because society is sexualizing them. At the same time, we force them to make a number of choices that are typically left to adults: Should a parent change their job, should we move, etc.? Kids today stop playing much earlier, and adults are searching for lifelong youth. It’s a juvenilization, not an infantilization.”

One could argue that parents today are making more effort to understand their children, validate their emotions and help them. Why is this increased attention on emotions an issue – what should they do instead?

“My parents were born in the 40s. They had the immense privilege of having an entire, stabilizing tradition and culture handed to them – while at the same time having the opportunity to rebel against it. Now we’re seeing the first generation of parents with no traditions in an authoritative sense of the meaning. They’re having difficulties in the parental role because they’ve learned that everything is fluid. It’s difficult for them to enter the parental role as guidance counselors and wards rather than friends. If my daughter’s boyfriend breaks up with her, I’m not going to throw myself into her room and cry my eyes out with her as a friend. I should let her grieve, but also help her put the situation into perspective and teach her how to master her emotions.”

Thriving is a useless concept

When I spoke to the CEO of Ungdomsbureauet, Anna Asghari, one of her key points was the gap of understanding between generations: Older generations insist on understanding young people through the lens of their youth. In the public debate, you often compare the challenges of today’s youth with your own. Do you understand the reality that young people are facing today?

“Then all conversation would end. It’s a devastating thought that young people alone should have the right to talk about and deal with the responsibility of their own lives. That’s one of the root causes of the problem! We must not become dogmatic in our view of young people, but everyone needs different perspectives on their existence. We should try to understand their reality, which is quite diverse – but that’s not the same as confirming their perception of that reality. Some young people reproduce many whims and ideas they have yet to think through. For example, they have a right to thrive, and mental well-being (trivsel, ed.) is a core responsibility of a university. Of course, it’s not! It’s a maintenance issue.”

Would young people feel better if the thought of the right to well-being was disposed of?

“Yes! Demanding well-being is a totalitarian thought. I shouldn’t decide how you should feel. As a leader, I can help you set a direction, but I can’t remove every stone in your way. When you’re doing something meaningful, it doesn’t always feel good. Thriving (trivsel, ed.) is, for the moment, probably not an efficient concept in education. Partly because it’s a blurred concept, partly because it, in a sense, is linked to performance. The term comes from agriculture: Cows that thrive produce more milk, and it reappears in schooling and education alongside political aims to promote performance.

Instead, let’s talk about formation (dannelse, ed) – the conscious act of enlightening, experiencing, and raising. Formation is also about crossing comfort limits – you can’t win without learning first. Kierkegaard says: “You need to learn to stand on your own” – that is not the same as being outstanding. Standing on one’s own requires exerting yourself – while being assisted and guided by parents, counselors, and teachers. Not alone by medicine, therapy, and psychology. In dark moments I could fear medicine will overtake pedagogy – and that is very unfortunate.”

"Learning to stand on your own is not the same as being outstanding"

Stefan Hermann

You’ve previously written and spoken about the fundamental schism between the great awareness around young people’s social lives while we expect them to manage on their own in education. How do you tackle the potential pressure and loneliness at University College?

“We do a number of things. But what we don’t do is establish separate offices for well-being, hire coaches, etc. We don’t isolate the issue because it is part of the way we teach, the way we organize ourselves, and the way we practice pedagogy. We help form strong communities. We tell our students that it’s up to them to organize school events – and celebrate when they go well. We support their social activities and communities. We don’t implement loneliness programs but joint activities that allow them to forget themselves for a while. Instead of saying, “I feel sorry for you,” we help them reach further, for example, through extra lessons. We stick to what we’re good at instead of trying to do what we’re not very good at.”

What have been the reaction from the students to this approach?

“They’re mostly in agreement, I think. We haven’t received much criticism because they seem to understand and agree with the general direction. We choose the integral path. It’s the path of community-building, not individual treatment. It’s the path of pedagogy, not psychology.”

Standing on one’s own

Anna Asghari argues that the current generation of young people is taking more responsibility than ever before. The climate movement, the revolution in identity politics – do you agree?

“A small segment is taking responsibility for the climate, and I applaud them. Look at young people’s voting patterns; it’s not that green. But rather than teaching them “climate guilt,” we should teach them to be citizens and human beings with all the duties and opportunities that entails. They won’t learn that by being inserted into a rat race, but neither will they know it by being asked how they’re constantly feeling. Becoming a human being is different from becoming a person. Becoming a human means taking moral responsibility for others, your own civilization, and standing on your own. The discourse of thriving seems to interpret the process of becoming a human being as having the right ‘to be who I want to be.’ Yes, that is your right, but it is also your duty to become a human being and a citizen! An becoming that is not just expansive: That means also learning to moderate yourself and to learn to cope with loss and suffering as well as to grow and thrive.”

About Stefan Hermann

Rector, University College Copenhagen since 2018, former chairman of Danske Professionshøjskoler, former rector of Metropolitan University College, Deputy CEO of ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, member of the board Council for Childhood Learning. Author on a number of books and articles on schooling, politics and society. Latest publication: Hot Times (2022), Informations Forlag.

Sara Gry Striegler

Director of Social Transition

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