Being a professor in my mid-forties, I have become increasingly aware of the generational differences between the current generation of college students and those of my generation. Of course, as I get older, they naturally seem younger and younger (though, let me be clear, I love my Hillsdale students). And, as the age of my children rapidly approach the age of my college students, I feel more and more parental affection toward them. When I first arrived at Hillsdale, the seniors were only a little younger than I. Now, I’m more than twice the age of the seniors.
Frankly, I’ve always been generationally aware, as the generation who “taught” me and “pastored” me in the late 1970s and 1980s was so radically self-aware, so radically self-conscious, and so immensely and proudly full of itself. They never let us forget they were different and “special.”
They made it clear that they were disappointed in the “conservatism” of my generation, that we only cared about material possessions and lacked the requisite hedonism to disrupt the norms of society. They meant by this: we didn’t protest our educational administrators (their bosses!) outright, and we didn’t engage in the free use of drugs and sex as they had. Those of us coming of age in the mid 1980s might have even been a bit prudish. Perhaps, we weren’t so enamored of the STDs spreading rapidly over the two decades previous to our own.
Of course, we protested often, and I think much of my generation possesses a wisely anti-authoritarian streak. We knew never to trust our teachers—whether in school or in Sunday School. We sneered at those in control of us (just watch The Breakfast Club, the most accurate film ever made about my generation), and we undermined them through quiet and clever rebellion, not through mass protest.
What I think angered them most, however, was the fact that we knew their radicalism was a mere sham, a play for power, though garbed in the language of peace and love. With them in charge, Pete Townshend would be proven a prophet: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Indeed, the so-called counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s was an utter sham, a desire for decadence unrestrained and power galore to remake the world in the image of the new tyrants. They made their misunderstanding of peace and love clear in almost every action, no matter their words. They were Jacobins, and we were romantic quasi-Jacobites.
They were ticked that we didn’t revere them as true and inspired “rebels.” Because, of course, we knew their rebellion to be as much a farce as a ruse. Real goodness, we understood, came from recognition of timeless truths and the unleashing of human creativity, not in conforming to someone else’s idea of humanity and in the tearing down of all things established.
That generation above mine lacked love as well as prudence, whatever their protestations. And, how easily they slid from spiritual decadence and rebellion to material power and decadence. This, of course, is because their revolt was based only on displeasure, lacking any real purpose, any desire to enchant the world.
The results of their generational self-obsessions surround us today: the greatest violations of civil liberties since the Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt administrations; immense debt piled upon debt; never-ending war and imperialism; broken homes and rootless children; folk Masses and widespread pedophilia; and architecture and an aesthetic sense that should make us weep.
That generation, comprised of those aged 55 to 80, spent the first half of its life wallowing in muck, and the second half enjoying all of the powers of the dominant, establishment culture. “Meet the new boss.” Unlike their parents, though, who probably should’ve disciplined a bit more, the children happily conformed the world into a “brave new world,” regulated by authoritarian symbols, body gropes under a federally protected police force, and drugs to soothe and smother every possibility of individualism. Should we be surprised? No rebels, they, but tyrants in the making.
Frankly, I laugh when I hear journalists and scholars proclaim the World War II generation the “greatest generation.” If so, they forgot to raise their own children very well. What lessons should be learned from the follies of these folks? Too many to count here.
To conclude, let me offer a few words of caution and encouragement.
First, the evil generation of our age is not the first such generation in history. Sadly, though they probably don’t know this as they think of themselves unique, many such generations exist in history. They have always wrecked rather than created, and they have left whole civilizations in ruin.
Second, the students of today are astounding young women and men. They know who they are; they carry with them principles; and they know their limitations. In other words, they are brilliant. At least the ones I teach. May I never treat them as my teachers and priests taught me. May I never proclaim folly while using whatever talents given me to recreate my students in my image. That’s been tried before, several times. That way leads to sadness, bitterness, and wrath.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.