For Open Dialogue Between Generations, Respect Is Key

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TIME was when the presence of a first lady as a graduation speaker at a middle-class high school in middle America would have been regarded as a coup - a definite honor, an occasion worthy of the utmost dignity and respect.

But times change, and so do attitudes. Last Sunday, just before Hillary Rodham Clinton was to address the graduating class at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, Ill., students let loose with nearly five minutes of raucous behavior. To the extreme embarrassment of school officials, the 418 seniors ignored their illustrious speaker and broke into a noisy dance. They repeatedly threw a classmate into the air. Some even sprayed white string from aerosol cans.

The White House meets "Animal House" in a leafy suburb.

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Explaining - and justifying - the students' behavior, Tricia Presutti, president of the student body, took a victorious approach. "It showed that this graduation was ours and not for anybody else," she was quoted as saying.

Anyone who has known firsthand the fellowship that can gladden the heart at a commencement - when talking and listening achieve a kind of harmony - must feel sad when an occasion for such connecting is wasted.

Is this what happens when youthful role models, if they exist at all, are more likely to be rock musicians and multimillionaire athletes than political and business leaders? In a new study by KidsPeace, half of 12- and 13-year-olds polled say they have no role model or hero - no one to look up to or emulate.

Or is it simply what occurs when teenagers' desire for independence and celebration supersedes anything they've been taught at home or school about the fourth "R" - respect?

In recent years, commencements have become occasions, here and there, for power struggles between students and administrators. Last month George Olah, a Nobel prizewinning chemistry professor at the University of Southern California, felt compelled to end his commencement address with an apology for even being present at the lectern.

Acknowledging the "displeasure" some seniors had expressed in the student newspaper about the school's choice of him as speaker, he told the graduates, "It was said that you deserved and expected a noted outside personality and not one of your own faculty. I am certainly not a well-known celebrity, and I am sorry if I could not convey to you the overwhelming wisdom and advice you expected."

Confrontations like these are, of course, only a seasonal manifestation of age-old generational questions: Who has the right to make decisions and enforce rules? Who holds the power?

Yet some on the front lines of education - high school teachers and university officials alike - see signs of broader attitudinal shifts. They tell of students who increasingly want no rules, of young people who want to be in charge. One professor at an East Coast college sees a return of the 1960s bumper-sticker admonition "Question authority."

Perhaps this isn't surprising, coming as it does from a latchkey generation that has, of necessity, developed often impressive skills in self-sufficiency and independence from an early age. Perhaps it's also symptomatic of attitudes copied from adults, who themselves sometimes regard limits on personal freedom - everything from marriage to dress codes to corporate policies - as too confining.

Dialogue can be as tricky as balancing a seesaw - never more so than when the dialogue is between generations. The classic error of the older generation is condescension. The classic error of the younger generation is to distrust anyone over 30 and dismiss what they have to say as irrelevant. Yet students like those noisy teens in Arlington Heights and those skeptical graduates in Los Angeles, heading out the door to join the adult community, should ask themselves this question: If a first lady and a Nobel laureate are not worth listening to, who is?

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