As part of the first week of classes, we had our regular opening reception for adjunct faculty. It’s a combination of a social gathering, an orientation, and an awards ceremony. I sat at a table with someone who teaches in the Homeland Security program, having recently retired from the field.
He mentioned his shock last semester when he referred to 9/11, and the students didn’t remember it. He did some quick math, and realized that when it happened, most of them were only a year or two old. He remembers it so vividly that it doesn’t even seem like the past; they remember it not at all.
It sneaks up on you. I remember referring to Ronald Reagan in a class, and getting back a wave of blank looks. Today’s 18 year olds may remember Bill Clinton mostly as Hillary’s husband. Jimmy Carter is about as current for them as Harry Truman was for me.
From the perspective of the instructor getting older, it’s easy to perceive that as loss. And in a certain way, it is. But it’s also the gift of fresh sets of eyes.
Young people show up with different baselines, different “givens.” That lets them see possibilities that I often don’t. My cohort came of age during the late stages of the Cold War, during which time a term like “socialist” was almost a profanity. Now, 30-year-old women of color are proudly adopting the label and winning elections. I remember when homophobic slurs were about as common as commas; now, someone using one at work would be escorted to HR.
Tressie McMillan Cottom recently wrote that “generations” -- in the sense of the Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials -- are labels typically only used on and for white people. That’s true, mostly, but I do see a real generational difference in shared memory. My kids have no recollection of the Cold War, and the very idea of it strikes them as ridiculous. In the 80’s, there was no escaping it; now, it’s hard even to explain. When I tried to convey the fear of communism, as opposed to the fear of Putin, I found myself sounding like a mirror image version of Sergei Antedeluvianovich Prelapsarianov, from Angels in America: at least the Soviets had a mission statement! (“What theory do you have? Cheeseburgers?”) Putin is hostile, it seems, just for sport.
Sometimes, historical memory can be a source of solace or inspiration. For example, having a longer frame of reference helps put the surrealism of the last couple of years of our national politics into perspective. No, this isn’t normal. No, this isn’t how it always worked. And yet, in some ways, the last couple of years can be read as the logical conclusion of a set of beliefs that have always been there. As horrific as child detainment is -- and it is -- it has precedent. The politics of “real Americans, “ as opposed to “those people,” have been around for longer than America has. Sometimes it flares up. It can be tamped down. It has been, before.
I’ve seen a shift of tone among younger people recently that gives me hope. They’re simply ignoring the old politics of “triangulation” in favor of a bracingly blunt recognition of the effects of decades of economic polarization. They aren’t trying to get cute with parsing language. They’re calling it like they see it, with fresh eyes undistorted by Cold War-era dogma. They’re telling truth, and they’re doing it in ways that would have been considered shocking when I was growing up.
As well they should. As (increasing!) elders, our job isn’t to correct them. It’s to empower them. It’s to give them some context, and get out of their way. Sometimes, it’s even to vote for them.
It’s the shift from “I feel your pain” to “Bring it!” And I say, it’s about time.
Program note: I’ll be taking The Boy to Ann Arbor early next week, so he can see it with his own fresh eyes. The blog will be back on Wednesday.