5:42 AM. Getting later every morning.
“Are universities mostly boot-camps for adulthood, where young people learn how to drink moderately, fornicate meaningfully and hand things in on time?” – David Brooks
Yesterday I ripped on the current generation of college students. I admitted, even flaunted, my skepticism that these “millenials”, as we’ve named them, are not up to the task of creating the stories that will press forward our Western literary tradition. And I did mean that. My good friend Amber Haines suggested in her comment the idea of “the innate nature of storytelling”. Amber also brought up Tim O’Brien’s notion that our stories come solely from the act of living both the lives we’ve been given and the lives we’ve chosen as improvement, and Amber hoped that in 20 years we’d see the stories this generation has carved out for themselves.
After reading back over the morning words I slagged out so quickly over my morning brew, I laughed at myself. Although I agree with everything I said, I couldn’t help thinking that I already sound like an old geezer. I’m 35, finishing up my fourth year teaching “Critical” Reading skills to college freshmen at a local community college. Surely, in all my huffing and puffing I sound like a thousand hundred flyers and flags on un-digital message boards from generations past begrudging the generation that will follow me, that will care for me, that will determine what television I’ll feast my gum-less face on as a crotchety old man.
What I saw at Tim O’Brien’s book reading Wednesday gave me even more hope for my student’s generation. O’Brien’s up there reading from The Things They Carried. He’s reading the section about Rat Kiley shooting the hell out of that baby water buffalo. Curt Lemon had just died. Stepped on a mortar. Blown to bits. Rat’s best friend. Curt and Rat were playing catch when Curt stepped on the mortar, the sunlight suddenly piercing through giant holes in Curt Lemon’s body. And later that night Rat Kiley shot up a baby water buffalo. “It wasn’t to kill,” Obrien writes, “it was to hurt.” O’Brien read on past the water buffalo scene to his section on the ambiguities of war. Beautiful writing. Big questions. Ideas that hit even harder than the visual of that water buffalo.
And all around me students squirmed and played on cell phones and ignored the reading. One girl behind me whispered to her neighbor, “This is so stupid. Who cares?” And in this moment, I felt that same taste of sadness I feel most days standing in class and watching faces that just don’t care for the dish I’m serving. Or that don’t see in my person a hope for their progress.
Then something curious happened.
During the Q-and-A, O’Brien went on a tangent that got loud. He began shouting into his lapel mic about hypocrisy and fear. He said it’s stupid of politicians to claim with their mouths they are pro-war but then send their own kids to Harvard. “If you truly believe in the war, go to the fucking war!” O’Brien screamed. “Send your kid to the war! Strap a gun on your son and daughter as quickly as you can shuffle the papers to send someone else’s son and daughter!” Then he turned to the church, to the fundamentalist Bible believers so quick to cry against abortion but equally quick to support war. O’Brien assured us, “I’m not talking about politics and religion here, people! I’m talking about common sense!”
And this time when I looked around me, every eye was engaged, every face lit up, every student in that room hung on O’Brien’s voice. Their pleasure with O’Brien surprised me. We’re in Central Texas, after all, and our politics in this area are more Conservative than Palin serving Polynesian nuggets at Chic-Fil-A. O’Brien railed against the very politics and religion these kids were weaned on, that they’ve held to as blindly as I once held to my own doctrinal denial of dancing.
However, I knew, even in the moment, those students were not enthralled by what O’Brien was saying, but by the very fact that he was saying it at all. O’Brien wasn’t bullshitting them. He wasn’t telling them what he should say, what they should hear. He told his truth. And he told his truth when he had absolutely nothing to gain from it. He told his truth because his truth was in him to tell.
If there’s anything this generation will get right, I think, it’s that they’ll evolve past bullshitting each other. My students have been lied to and led astray and duped so many times by our current education system that they look at me with anxious, deep-seeded mistrust. Their skepticism in me is far greater than my skepticism in them. They understand the brokenness and futility of the system, even if they don’t understand the whats and hows of the system. I find myself barking behind their backs about their lack of manners and respect for authority, and then I realize, oh yeah, many of them have not had authority worth trusting or respecting or exercising manners toward. Even if their teachers have loved them and served them well, and many of their teachers have, even those teachers are backed and bought by a system they hold in contempt. My students simply haven’t learned, as I’m only beginning to and as they will eventually, that sometimes you have to stand knee-deep in shit in order to pull others out of the shit.
David Brooks published a piece in the New York Times yesterday concerning the purposes of the university. And one question he posed at the beginning of his article sent a chill over me: “Are universities mostly boot camps for adulthood, where young people learn how to . . . hand things in on time?” This is a good question. What do we expect of our students? Of their generation? Do we see them sloughing off O’Brien’s reading of his book and discredit them too soon? Do we realize the value in their pleasure with O’Brien’s truth-telling over his book-reading? Have we elevated the voice on the page, what we refer to as “Reading Comprehension”, over a healthy analysis of voice in general that severs the lines between political correctness and dire authenticity?
Truth be told, I should be as skeptical of what I ask of my students as they are. I should question the futility of my assignments and influence as much as they do. I wanted the same from my teachers, and I had hella good teachers. But do I want the same for my students? Do I share their hope for a bullshit free future? I ask God every morning in a simple prayer to agree with Him in every way possible – in my actions, thoughts, and words. This includes an agreement to speak the truth even when something other than the truth is expected or acceptable. When it comes to truth, I saw Tim O’Brien speak the heart of God. And so did my students. It’s what their generation wants more than anything from my generation.