Class on ’68 provokes thought

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December 8, 2007

2:20 PM

p. 2007 has been a rough year for our generation. Our elders passed down the verdict, seemingly en masse, that we’re a preternaturally apathetic bunch of hooligans, incapable of mustering the wherewithal to improve the world.

p. Our incubation period is over — the grown-ups want results, pronto. In the press, we were maligned: Rick Perlstein trashed our university lifestyles, Thomas Friedman dubbed us Generation Q (for “quiet”) and David Brooks placed us in “a new life phase” called the Odyssey Years. And that was just The New York Times.

p. Damn.

p. I had the privilege this semester to enroll in a course called “1968!” — the exclamation point is vital — in which 30 or so bright and articulate students gathered weekly to discuss the zeitgeist of that particular year, just in time for its 40th anniversary. Rather than succumbing to the pitfall of empty ’60s nostalgia, we embraced perspectivism, hearing firsthand from a multitude of internationals who lived through the tumult of that era.

p. We also argued a lot. I mean constantly. It never got violent, but I always packed alcohol swabs and a staple remover. Just in case.

p. The oft-discussed big, burning question was: Is there something irreparably crooked about our generation? Some felt that coming of age in the prosperity of the ’90s had left us impotent, secluded by our egocentric impulses. We bickered about the shape of the future and our ability to mold it. And though we arrived at no transcendent epiphanies, I think we’re all more aware than ever of how systemic the problem is and how vigilant we must be in solving it.

p. Take the College’s own Virginia Informer, for example, which recently ran a humor column called “Walk this way.” It’s an innocuous enough piece, focusing on the plethoric ways in which students “are absolutely awful at upholding standard walking etiquette.”

p. But I got to thinking: Really? This is it? Not only was the article unfunny, it was maddeningly trivial and mean-spirited — imagine a “Seinfeld” episode hopped up on coke and you get the drift. “There’s nothing worse,” the author wrote, than taking “a step off the sidewalk, onto the road and then back up onto the sidewalk just because some inconsiderate jerks refuse to give you an inch.”

p. Well, it turns out there’s a whole lot that’s worse. I don’t yearn in any way for the political climate of 1968, but I doubt that such ephemera could be found in student newspapers back then. The worldwide malaise of 2007 is no less horrifying than 1968’s, but fewer of us are apt to engage it.

p. If a semester of discourse between 30 impassioned students couldn’t get to the bottom of this, then one middling column certainly won’t, either. But I’ll hazard a few guesses to pass the time.

p. It seems to me that, more than the class of ’68, we of the so-called Q generation have a basic inability to empathize with humans other than ourselves. This lamentation appears in nearly every column of mine lately, but it bears repeating. As writer David Foster Wallace said in a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, “Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence … It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of.”

p. Hence the thoughts about what a bitch it is to negotiate our brick-paved walkways, teeming as they are with people who aren’t us. Hence the reflex to believe that we deserve more than the average Joe, simply because we’ve read David Foster Wallace and know how terrifically fucked-up George Bush is.

p. The Informer columnist derided his peers, albeit sarcastically, for their selfishness; he didn’t consider how selfish it was to feel burdened by an extra step or two. If I can’t grasp that the student hogging the sidewalk is a full-fledged human being, how am I supposed to cognize the essential humanity of, say, a devoutly Islamic Iranian woman? Any failure to accept that she’s tantamount to me makes it less likely that I’ll accommodate her right to exist.

p. Wallace puts it best: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated and understanding how to think.”

p. Dan Piepenbring is a Confusion Corner columnist. He sometimes has trouble negotiating our brick-paved walkways.

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