2001 Commencement Address - Generations
May 27, 2001
THE YEAR I GOT OUT OF COLLEGE my girlfriend, who was a little younger, dropped out to join what was called the Venceremos Brigade. This ragtag brigade was off to Cuba to cut sugar cane in defiance of the blockade. The harvest, la zafra, was going to be the biggest in history. It was going to bring Cuba new wealth and new possibilities. There was defiant talk that it would end the blockade somehow. I liked the idea that Adelia would go, but I worried that something bad might happen. It was not the illegality of the trip to Cuba that worried me. That made it interesting. The year was 1969 and everything interesting and important seemed to be against the law. I worried that Adelia would love Cuba and want to stay. I worried, not unreasonably, that the Cuban boat would sink en route. Maybe I worried she'd meet someone else. But I had no grounds to object: just before I met her I had spent a dropout year of my own in a squatter settlement outside Lima, Peru.
She left from St. John's, Newfoundland, in a small, rusty freighter that shipped cattle among communist countries. The boat could easily have sunk; with every weather report I worried that it would. But the brigadistas made it ashore in Havana and were sent out to the country to cut cane. Adelia did love Cuba. The women insisted on cutting when the Cuban authorities said it was men's work. Fidel came out to the fields to speak. Adelia spoke good Spanish and got to use it with Cuban students and farmworkers. She was impressed by the schools and the clinics in all the villages and towns. She liked the fresh ice cream that Fidel bragged about. She didn't always like the way some of the Americans in the group behaved; she didn't like the way some of the Cubans explained away the dictatorship and the punishment of dissent. She had her doubts, but mostly, at 20, she was caught up in the fervor of socialist conviction that she found among Cuba's young communists.
Soon enough Adelia was back home in Boston, where I was in law school, and we talked endlessly about what she had felt and seen. One of the funniest things about this time in our lives was the comments made about the brigadistas on the floor of the United States Congress while the boat was returning to St. John's. The newspapers had reported outrage that this group of student dropouts had managed to evade the blockade and contribute their labor to what turned out to be the disappointing (and deflating) Cuban harvest of sugarcane. The outrage bordered at times on a charge of treason. But the officials who spoke seemed to recognize immediately that the brigadistas were going to come and go unpunished. "How dare they do this under our noses?" senators and representatives asked. Senator Eastland of Mississippi stood up and gave the best of these speeches to his colleagues. "These students," he said, "are human guided missiles aimed at the heart of America."
Adelia and I loved that comment and still recite it to one another at odd times of family misadventure. Somebody in authority, however preposterous, took them seriously and saw the threat of subversion in Adelia's otherwise uneventful return to me and to college.
I tell you this in order to touch on some of the things that authorities are saying about you: human guided missiles yourselves as you leave here, aimed at something or other I'm sure, out to do mischief of one kind or another. But few of us (and maybe fewer of you) know exactly what kind of mischief you are up to and how and when you will accomplish it.
Older people have talked about younger people for as long as we know. Often, older people seem to have assumed that things were better—and even bigger—before. We call you a generation and affix various general attributes to you as a group: you are smarter, lazier, more sophisticated, less intense—or maybe intense about different things. Amid all these casual opinions about you, no one is ever quite sure how long a generation lasts or how widely our generalizations about generations apply. But we have become enormously self-conscious about the succession of generations: the greatest generation, the generation of the baby boomers, Generation X and now Generation Y or Z.
What sense is there in this talk of generations and what does it mean to you?
I was born in 1946, the first year after the end of the Second World War. Somewhere along the path of my childhood, a grown-up realized how many of us there were and first spoke of the baby boom. Kindergartens were crowded; suburbs sprouted everywhere; when the time came to apply to college, there were enough of us so that colleges and universities could pick and choose—and so began the "selectivity" in admissions that has dogged you in your generation through high school and college. More recently, people began to drop the "baby" in the epithet of my generation and refer to us all as boomers: an appropriate word for lots of reasons but perhaps most of all for its suggestion of boosterism and bluster, of a certain tinny tone of "Here I come, so make plenty of room for me" that we in my generation have managed to sound in our every transition.
You can oppose your generation, you can lead it, you can revel in its company or you can despise it. But for better or worse these are your colleagues in time across the world. And wherever you live, and whatever you do, these are your neighbors—literally, those nearby.
Most of you were born in the late '70s or early '80s to parents born at least two or three decades before. Together you are a cohort in time, a generation. People have described you in various ways:
There is the complaint—generations old, I suspect—that you are apathetic, that is, that you lack passion or commitment. There is the complaint that you are a generation of résumé builders, intent on your own fulfillment at work and in leisure but indifferent to the larger social good. The neoconservative David Brooks says that most of you put no emphasis on character and thus lack not just passion but ethics. Liberals and those on the left sometimes see you in much the same light, only lacking concern for inequality and injustice in the world at large.
I hear you say of yourselves that you find too little outrage among your classmates, or even in yourselves.
I'm uneasy with this sort of generalizing, even as I accept not just its inevitability but its possible bits of truth. There is implicit in it a kind of censure or blame: you are responsible for the sins not just of your fathers and mothers but of your companions within this generation.
If anyone can take responsibility for you and your generation it must be those of us who reared you and shaped you as children: your parents, your teachers, the singers you listened to, the writers you read, perhaps the politicians who led the country as you grew into adulthood. Maybe after all it is Mr. Rogers who's at fault; maybe his gentle way lulled you somehow into complacency. But I doubt it.
There's a wonderful statement of Lincoln's in the midst of his presidency: "I claim not to have controlled events; I confess plainly that events have controlled me." Events have controlled all of us: in our place of birth, the fortunes of those who reared us, the bodies we are, our temperaments—perhaps most of all in the advantages and disadvantages visited on us by the circumstances of our parents.
Talking to historians, I am convinced that we have in the idea of generations a notion owed to a certain kind of modern history or modern awareness — of time, of dates, of events. Europeans in the 19th century began to think of themselves not as ancients and moderns but as creatures of specific events and narrower periods: thus the generation of the Revolution in France, the generation of Napoleon, the generation of the uprisings of 1848 across the continent. Perhaps the most notable generation of the 20th century was that of the First World War, which in its very naming suggested a notion of a global conflict and thus a widely shared experience. For many, perhaps for most, it was an awful experience, captured well in Ezra Pound's bitter elegy for Hugh Selwyn Mauberly. Pound wrote of the war's soldiers that they "walked eye-deep in hell, believing in old men's lies, then unbelieving came home.…"
Well before the modern period we read of generations, of course: There is the simple natural succession in a family line, as in the Bible's catalogue of who begat whom. There is a distinction among the sorts of people who have lived at different periods—"giants on the earth" or Methuselahs supposedly centuries old.
By contrast, the notion of generations that we have grown used to seems now absurdly casual. New generations are announced every few years, chiefly in America, often on the basis of fads or tastes, and rarely because of any large circumstance or event that frames lives. Generations thus identified may have no shared experience of anything but time—not war, not peace, not a hope or even, as with Pound, a despair. Still there remain features of your experience that may put you, all of you, in a generation different from others before you:
Let me evoke three of these:
First, you have grown up in an age of specialization. So has everyone before us, you may say. Specialization is relative and will go on forever. But the specialization that you have known has reached down into your lives early on and taken a hold on you beyond what any human beings have known. Take the modest but telling example of sports. Not only did the pick-up game disappear from childhood a long while ago, but so too did much of the free play that went with it. From an early age your games have been coached and watched over by adults. Your play has been supervised and purposeful. In most cases you were pushed, or you pushed yourselves, to specialize in one game or another, to play it in all seasons, to compete in leagues and tournaments. One consequence is that you are often better than those of us who learned these games a generation ago. Another consequence is that you had less time to play, and more time to train.
The example speaks, I suspect, to large portions of your lives: to your musical training, to your intellectual lives, the careers opening up before you, perhaps in some sense even to your ties with those you love.
Second, you are the first generation in history to live in constant and instant connection to much of the globe. We who are your parents grew up with a widening web of travel connections to the world at large. That in itself changed the world, taking away remoteness and imposing a dominant world culture of marketing and trade on nearly every human settlement. But the web of computers and phones and faxes, with or without wires, has wrought an even more dramatic shift. At its best it pushes us all toward world citizenship, toward an awareness of how different we all are and yet how alike. But at its worst it makes us world-weary imperialists who can exploit anyone anywhere at anytime. Around the world, those your age, or rather the privileged among you, have more information and thus in a narrow sense more knowledge than any other human beings have ever had. This is a privilege, but it is also a huge, sometimes almost impossible, burden.
Third, and perhaps most decisive of all, you have grown up in an intellectual climate that is profoundly anti-utopian. Communism is dead; socialism is a modest corrective to capitalism; anarchism is an excuse for rioting or, worse, terrorism. The communes are gone; the kibbutzim are going. Many a revolution has come and gone, leaving a wrecked economy or a dictatorship in its place. Liberation struggles, like that of the Kosovars or the Afghans, turn almost overnight into ethnic or religious tyrannies.
Sometimes you will hear your elders whine that you are disillusioned or cynical. Every generation leaves parents perplexed and distraught. Our parents thought we were lost in the rhetoric of rebellion.
What is true, I think, is that you have grown up in a time that is after many dreams, many utopias gone bad. If you are disillusioned, it is probably because some prominent illusions have fallen away. My generation can give names to our disillusion: Vietnam, Watergate, and then, with history going, as Marx predicted, from tragedy to farce, the various scandals and soap operas of American and world politics in the last few years.
I have a sense that most of you knew this somehow in advance: You were wary of the illusions that lead to disillusionment and cynicism. You are cautious about utopian dreams, even in your own lives, because so many of them have led others to tragedy or comedy or both at once.
The challenge for you will be to make your way amid these conditions, shaped by them but not bound by them. To work with others you will have to specialize intensely. But in doing so, I hope you will find your way to a larger vision of what you are about, a vision in which your specialization makes sense and does good. Most of you will live lives of instant connection to a wild array of places and people. The challenge for you will be to forge a sense of responsibility across these great distances—and, what is harder, across the great differences of wealth, privilege, and power that will separate you from so many of your contemporaries. Finally, in an age that is too knowing for utopias, it will be up to you to hold out ideals against the cynicism that says that all ideals are fraudulent. The truth is that ideals can sometimes go wrong. But without ideals you will never find your way. The very conditions that will sometimes discourage you—the need for intense specialization, the global scale of competition and cooperation, the barrage of knowledge and information—these are the conditions that will test and strengthen your ideals and make them more powerful and more enduring.
It is always astonishing to be alive. For you to live now, when you can go anywhere and do almost anything, is an added source of astonishment. Yeats has a poem in which the gods envy those on earth their passions. We who are older than you may or may not envy you your youth, but we envy you the world you will come to know and to change.