Testing Gen Z

Past generations have confronted their own crises with grit, resilience and a commitment to the greater good, and we're confident Gen Z will do the same, write Glenn C. Altschuler and David Wippman.

April 20, 2020
 
 
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Across the country, college campuses are deserted. The students who ordinarily trade parkas and backpacks for shorts and Frisbees as spring temperatures rise now spend their days social distancing at home. Classes have gone online. Gone as well are all the activities outside the classroom that make residential college life such a rich coming-of-age experience.

Generation Z is being tested as never before. Past generations have confronted their own crises with grit, resilience and a commitment to the greater good. We are confident Gen Z will respond to this defining moment in their young lives and do the same.

In 1917, Hamilton College students helped make the world “safe for democracy.” Of the 46 seniors in the graduating class that year, 37 served in the war. Students from other classes dropped out of college to join them. Of the students who remained on campus, most enrolled in the Student Army Training Corps.

Just as the war ended and it seemed the world might return to normal, a different pandemic struck. The “Spanish flu” of 1918 killed at least 50 million people worldwide. Within two weeks of the outbreak, 50 students (one-fifth of the Hamilton student body) were infected. With medical services and hospitals in short supply, healthy students volunteered to assist sick students.

The flu hit Cornell University’s campus just before classes started. Within weeks, about 900 students were afflicted (at a time when most medical personnel were serving in World War I). About 37 of them died, as did Henry Davis, Cornell’s only instructor in anatomy. The number would have been far higher had it not been for the volunteers from the university, Ithaca and other nearby towns.

Several decades later, in World War II, hundreds of Hamilton students joined the fight, along with one of every three living Hamilton alumni. Many never returned. To facilitate student participation in the war effort, Hamilton revamped its academic calendar to enable students to finish their degrees in only two and a half years.

Following America’s declaration of war against Japan, Germany and Italy in December 1941, 4,500 undergraduates left Cornell for the armed forces. Countless other young Americans enlisted or were drafted instead of matriculating at Cornell as first-year students. Many but by no means all of these individuals completed their degrees when World War II ended. And a substantial number of Cornell faculty left Ithaca to do war-related research -- including on radar, atomic bombs and other weapons -- in this country and around the world. Their lives were reshaped and redefined, as well.

What became of these past generations? Most lived full and productive lives. Those who served in World War II we now call the Greatest Generation.

Today’s students find their education disrupted, loved ones at risk of illness and, in many cases, financial hardship. They must live in isolation, cut off from friends and classmates, and prepare themselves to start their careers, or try to, during what may be the worst job market since the Great Depression.

Today’s students are far from self-centered, self-indulgent and fragile. So far, the vast majority of students we see are looking out for each other, supporting their families and finding ways to serve their communities. Think, for example of the 8,000 volunteers at Invisible Hands, the organization founded by two 20-somethings in New York City, who deliver groceries to people who should not or cannot leave their homes and apartments. Or the medical students who are graduating early and treating patients in coronavirus hotspots. Or the undergraduates, many of them completing their own coursework online, who are tutoring middle school and high school students on FaceTime and Zoom.

Their stories have yet to be told. When this crisis passes, as it surely will, Gen Z, we believe, may well get the gratitude of a grateful nation.

Bio

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He can be reached at [email protected]. David Wippman is the president of Hamilton College and may be reached at [email protected].

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