Two weeks ago I asked my college freshmen classes to write themes of 500 words explaining why they had come to college. I pleaded with the students to write as directly and candidly as they could on the subject, letting their feelings fall where they might, and cautioned them to avoid those smokey cliches and pre-packaged formulas which tend frequently to surround the subject, like "becoming a well-rounded individual," or "education's being of prime importance in this day and age."
I had hoped that some of them might write of their excitement in pursuing a particular course of study (and one did). I rather expected them to speak about necessary preparations for future careers, with rehearsals of family expectations and family obligations, or of widening their range of acquaintances and areas of competence. I expected mostly to be told about wishes to land a "good paying job" on graduation -- and that's mostly the response I got. Except for two papers.
These two papers were written in somewhat stumbling English and contained more grammatical errors than any of the others. Neither of the papers spoke about good jobs or of winning a safe future in a difficult world. Instead, and rather oddly, they both began by defining man. "Man is not an animal," they said, "he doesn't just eat and sleep. No, he is different from animals. He has an imagination, he has dreams." The writers of these papers (one hoped to become an M.D.; the other, a civil engineer) spoke about "obligations to the world." One of the writers wanted to "help the ones that need me." The other ended with this statement: "May God help me, and strengthen me mentally, physically, and spiritually so as to become a fruitful citizen and a help to my country and the human race."
I was impressed and also disturbed. The papers were written by students from countries far from the United States. One student was from Angola; the other, from Lebanon.
I began thinking of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Harvard commencement address of 1978 (represented in our freshman reading text), in which he accused Americans of an "eroded humanism" by means of which under the continuous pressure of material concerns, the American will and spirit had grown weaker and more blurred each year. In that controversial address, which I had not planned to assign my classes, Solzhenitsyn went so far as to argue that Soviet communism and American humanism were very much the same thing and founded on the same stones: "boundless materialism" and "freedom from religion and religious responsibility."
Was Solzhenitsyn right? I wondered. When I assigned his essay for my classes the following week, my students said no.m But when I told them of their foreign classmates' remarks about their "obligations to the world," they became very quiet.
A number of things came together in my mind at that point. I remembered Edward Kennedy's memorable speech before the Democratic National Convention, ending with Ulysses' determination "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield;" but I remembered also in Tennyson's poem that at an earlier period Ulysses had decided to leave Ithaca because of citizens "that hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me." I thought of Robert McNamara leaving his position as president of the World Bank in tears and telling its members, "We have had it in our power to fight poverty, and we have failed to do so." I thought of Hamlet's soul-searching soliloquy, in which he asks himself: "What is a man, If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more." And I thought of our own American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson who raised, at the beginning of this century, very much the same question Solzhenitsyn did 60 years later when his "Cassandra," that mythical woman who was sadly never wrong, asks: "Are we to pay for what we have / With all we are?"
It would be a poor thing for me to question the motives of young people coming to college today, but tendencies are worth noting. A recently published survey of 1979 college freshmen found that 64 percent said their primary reason for attending college was to "make a good salary" -- a percentage up from the 44 percent of just four year ago. What has happened in the last few years? The Alliance for Progress, the Peace Corps -- where are they? Why is McNamara in tears? How has the idea of a mutually supportive worldwide community gone by by boards in America? Wher eis the smouldering idealism which leads a young person to rise beyond the purely momentary and practical? Such questions surfaced in our class discussions, and it was the student from Angola who came to the aid of his American classmates, suggesting that perhaps they had not seen very much suffering in their own country and thus did not really think there could be much need in the world for their "help."
Such an explanation seemed reasonable to me. Without compassion we are not stirred to do much. And there is little possibility for compassion to arise in us when we are shown only those sides of life which soothe our uncertainties or maker our eyes bright with the promise of imminent possession.
The problem is our temporary inability to realize that the meeting of our own personal needs is only an intermediate step to the acquisition of any "happiness" worth the word. This is not an outmoded way of looking at things. It is not something that had its day before the laissez fairem of innovative morality, currently in vogue. If our own development never gets beyond the personal level, the danger is not simply that others will never meet their own needs, but that we ourselves will end up half-grown. The signs of this danger and the choice we must help young people to make are all around us. Students are not wrong in wishing to secure their personal lives: their personal needs must surely be recognized, honored, and met. But they must also be brought to understand that such fulfillment is only a passage to a greater decisiveness in their natures. They cannot be allowed to submit to that carelessness which leads to the misrepresentation of their own inward reality at the expense of others' outward realities -- and at the ultimate expense of themselves.
"Are we to pay for what we have/With all we are?" Let us give the lie to Cassandra.