Since the beginning of recorded history, elders have complained that young people are “going to the dogs.”
But, by my lights, it is rather the present age itself that’s going to the dogs, while some young people stand out both for their insights into the flaws of our time and for their readiness to engage in reform.
A landmark Pew report out this year characterizes this “millennial generation” as selfless, connected, and inclined toward optimism. Studies show millennials prioritize family and helping others, more than previous generations. Researchers note their progressive, volunteering values.
It was last year that I, myself, first recognized what I will call this generation’s “counter-force” of conscientiousness at work.
For several years I have served as a judge on a panel that recognizes outstanding high-school seniors and awards them monies toward their college education. The program, “Students of Distinction,” is sponsored by our local newspaper, The Peninsula Gateway. Candidates are nominated by their teachers in various categories – academic achievement, science and technology, business and entrepreneurship, the arts, etc. The candidates submit short essays about their classes (always featuring plenty of Advanced Placement courses) and community service. Then they come before panels for interviews.
The level of community service among today’s high-schoolers is always a point of wonder for us panelists. Certainly, we had our “extracurricular activities,” but few engaged in the more outward-looking activities, like staffing a food bank, reading to nursing-home residents, raising money for a disaster somewhere in the world. And students today, the outstanding ones, show an impressive readiness to form a club to “raise awareness” about their particular community service.
While some of this service may be rendered with an eye to enhancing one’s college applications, still the community is served and the students are focused beyond themselves.
Redirecting the discussion
But what stood out last year, when I served on the academic achievement panel, was this: While the two final candidates could each boast a perfect 4.0 grade average (though with becoming modesty they did not boast), both of them – on their own, without a cue from the panel – redirected the discussion away from things academic and toward things ethical-moral.
Dan, when we asked what he wanted to be, paused and said, “I just want to be a good person,” then added softly, “even though not many people think that’s important.” With a nod to the other panelists, I departed from the script we’d crafted: “In saying that, then, clearly you think that – what shall we call it? – the moral life is important?” “Yes!” Dan replied, emphatically. He went on to say popular culture tells us to “consume, consume, consume, but I really don’t think that’s the point of life.” Amen! (This was six months after the 2008 financial crash.)
Natalie, the other finalist, likewise redirected the discussion, to point to the financial crash and expound on “the rightness and wrongness of things.” She pointed out the ethical wrongness of irresponsible parties – over-leveraged banks, over-indebted consumers – wreaking havoc in the lives of citizens who act responsibly. Again, amen. It was Natalie who noted it was America (Wall Street) that caused what’s now a global recession.
How to choose a “winner” between Dan and Natalie? Our unanimous vote was to choose both (until the sponsoring paper forced our hand.)
Seeking the 'high purpose'
At about the same time, I read of Michael, a high-school junior from our area, who won the state’s “Letters about Literature” award with an essay on the White Rose Society. The White Rose Society was a group of German university students who tried to mount resistance to Hitler, with tragic results. Most were arrested by the Gestapo and executed. Why exactly did Michael choose this topic? Because, he said in a newspaper interview, he wanted to study and write about people his age who had found purpose – “a high purpose” – something to live and die for.
Then, more recently, Meagan, a new college graduate of my acquaintance, joined the Peace Corps, specifically because, she said, “I want to be part of something bigger than just me-me-me.” Meagan is now training to work in Mozambique on AIDS. And, at an election-night party last month, it was the young people who were most exercised about the blatant anti-Muslim rhetoric unleashed in the controversy over the Islamic center proposed near ground zero. “It’s so un-American,” they said.
The moral life, the rightness and wrongness of things, high purpose, something bigger than self… In ethical-moral content, these goals embody a powerful, not-so-subtle critique of the culture now at large – a culture of ethical-moral laxness and the narcissism of me-me-me at the expense of the commonweal. These ethical-moral goals also embody a critique of the regnant generation – the boomers – a critique that would take a book to unpack. (In brief, the boomers started out strong, when their more conscientious cohort tackled the Greatest Generation’s faults – racism, sexism, anti-Semitism – and curtailed an unnecessary war in Vietnam. But these achievements were swamped in time by the self-indulgence of the boomers’ larger, less conscientious cohort, reflected in their exorbitant consumerism and lack of social-political involvement.)
Hope for reversing America's decline
If we are to reverse America’s decline and fall, if America is to rise again, restore itself to its principled ideals, it will be due not to more horsepower applied more energetically, as is so often the American way. It will be because a counter-force posing the tough ethical-moral questions – of ways and means, of program and purpose, of war and peace – has been pressed by the incoming generation, by the likes of Dan, Natalie, Michael, and Meagan.
For sure, with the ship of state heaving about as it is, to press this counter-force will be daunting. Moreover, too many Americans think such an ethical-moral mission is boring, even grim. But if I may pass on my own acquired insight: The life engagé, precisely because it is engaged in high purpose, makes for a most meaningful existence and a most passionate, exciting ride. Buckle up, o happy young warriors!
Carla Seaquist is author of the book, “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character,” a collection of op-eds, essays, and dialogues. Also a playwright, she is working on a play titled “Prodigal.” She blogs at Huffingtonpost.com