Short Take: History, Deluded

David Brooks took a road trip to find out what Millennials in America’s best colleges* are thinking. It isn’t good.

It’s not that the students are hopeless. They are dedicating their lives to social change. It’s just that they have trouble naming institutions that work. A number said they used to have a lot of faith in the tech industry, but they have lost much of it. “The Occupy strategy was such a visible failure, it left everyone else feeling disillusioned,” one lamented. “We don’t even have a common truth. A common set of facts,” added another.

The second large theme was the loss of faith in the American idea. I told them that when I went to public school the American history curriculum was certainly liberal, but the primary emotion was gratitude. We were the lucky inheritors of Jefferson and Madison, Whitman and Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy and King. Our ancestors left oppression, crossed a wilderness and are trying to build a promised land.

The kids weren’t buying.

They looked at me like I was from Mars. “That’s the way powerful white males talk about America,” one student said.

If you were hoping for an uplifting story, this ain’t it. The responses showed that we’ve gone from young people seeing a nation of hope to wallowing in misery, authoritarian nihilists.

I asked them to name the defining challenge of their generation. Several mentioned the decline of the nation-state and the threats to democracy. A few mentioned inequality, climate change and a spiritual crisis of meaning. “America is undergoing a renegotiation of the terms of who is powerful,” a woman from the University of Chicago astutely observed.

Note that Brooks described the unattributed quote as being “astute.” So outrage ensued.

As I said during his student session at the University of Chicago, and as I was later quoted (unnamed) in his column, our generation is indeed “undergoing a renegotiation of the terms of who is powerful.” A critical part of this is giving a voice to those who have been disenfranchised in our world.

Mr. Brooks and I clearly have different views on American history. The American experience isn’t retrospectively one of “gratitude,” as he posits; instead, many of my peers’ grandparents were held in internment camps, marched for their own civil rights and had to fight the American government’s best effort at erasure.

Of course, this is a woke Chicago student explaining her peers’ grandparents perspective as felt through her “views on American history.” But she’s not done.

Why does he attribute my opinions to a lack of historical knowledge rather than engaging with the intricacies of the American experience? If he wants to understand millennials, he should create a real dialogue rather than dismissing their ideas as generational delusions.

Brooks didn’t dismiss your ideas as generational delusions, but that takeaway reflects part of the meta problem arising from this “dialogue.” You want to be able to wallow in the misery of victimhood and oppression, and complain bitterly that the grown-ups treat you like children.

Maybe the first thing you should consider doing is realizing that you’re a college senior and David Brooks is not your peer, looking to you to explain what’s horrible about the world. And maybe the second thing you should consider is how you plan to feed yourself and the children you may, despite the odds, have some day rather than wallow in misery. And how all the marginalized are going to feed themselves and their kids too.

There’s no future wallowing in misery. Snap out of it.

*Per Brooks:

Most of the students I’ve met with so far are at super-competitive schools — Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago and Davidson — so this is a tiny slice of the rising generation.

33 thoughts on “Short Take: History, Deluded

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s hard to be angry when he’s given you nothing to be angry about. But every obstacle can be overcome if you try hard enough.

  1. B. McLeod

    It isn’t limited to these stupid kids. The pendulum has swung from the idea of a common society to a Balkanized concept of zillions of little special groups and individuals all wanting to be a nation unto themselves. We are too far up Maslow’s hierarchy, and so we see half or more of the folks who have time to post on the Internet turning to abstractions to try to look smarter. When creditors or other issues bring them back to the whole finding food thing, that will drag them back to a lower level on the hierarchy, where they may or may not have an epiphany about why the nation exists and why it has value (despite its overall failure to conform to their every batshit, PC opinion).

    1. SHG Post author

      It isn’t limited to these stupid kids.

      But my post is. Let me know when you start your own blog to discuss whatever pops into your head, k?

      1. Billy Bob

        B. McCoud is having one of those McCloudy dayz,… may we suggest? Hey, we like U. of Chicago. It is and always was, highly underrated! How do I know that? I went there two generations ago. Ha. But not for long. We got *homesick* for the N.Y. metro area. Too hot in summer, too cold in winter. It was the pits, didn’t know how to drress [for unsuccess].
        “Balkanized.”… yea, one of our favorite words, along with “epiphany”. What is Life without one or more epiphanies? Cannot bear the thought! Seen one, experienced them all, trust it.
        As for Maslow,… McDudd had to go there. Now we have to look him up, because,… I dunno.? Sounds impotent-impressive. We’re trying hard, but it’s not coming back. Is that something like Pavlov’s dogs? U. of Chicago was a long time ago. We’ve forgotten more than many will ever know, trust it. (We count that as a +1.) Excepting Judge Kopf from the Western District. The man is a genius in the field of jurisprudence and you can take that to the bancruptcy court.

      2. Dan Hull

        Easy on the Highlander. Like me he’s a verbally audacious Celt & retired pharmacologist. Studied with Keith Richards. Good taste in pumps, too.

  2. PseudonymousKid

    Dear Papa,

    This rabbit hole is no snap. The damn thing is convoluted. Alienation isn’t just something that switches on and off. Maybe it isn’t about wallowing in misery as much as asking, what for? Like you say family is one thing, maybe, but by all accounts millennials aren’t forming them as quickly as their predecessors. Fewer children. Fewer marriages. So what else? Pad that bank account or gather up stuff, I guess, even if just to give it away? We all have to eat like you say.

    Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century and late in the last, tempered by the internet, disciplined by no one, ashamed of our past, and willing to permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation was never really committed, and to which we aren’t committed now.


    1. SHG Post author

      Has the torch been passed, or are we holding it out, waiting for Millennials to take it, and but they refuse? I understand nihilism. And if so, then they should end it now instead of taking up space in the basement and eating all the Cheetos. Otherwise, they need to get off their sorry asses and do something.

      1. PseudonymousKid

        Luckily smoked wings exist. You can keep the cheetos, but definitely pass the bong. That’s about all I can be hopeful millennials can help accomplish.

      2. Billy Bob

        You understand *nihilism*? Jean Paul Sartre-breath. Written on the bathroom wall, either N.Y.U. or Columbia (Does not matter):
        “To be is to do.” Sartre.
        “To do is to be.” Camus.
        “Do-bee, do-bee doo!” Sinatra.

        Let me say this about that: Millennials need to do something, even if it’s wrong, even if it’s a bad song, even if it’s a ding-dong. The Greatest Generation can do no wrong!
        For the record: BB was a millennial long before it was fashionable. It’s a terrible life, but keep your chin up and your china clean: Better dayz are comin’ (next time around, sorry to burst you black hole bubble.) Now let us prayyy, in the name of Billy Graham. (He was no *Cracker*). Give your life and your savings to the One and Only BeJesus. That is an Order!

        1. SHG Post author

          You’ve come up with a great idea for fixing the problem, Bill. We put you in a PSA and say, “this is what becomes of Millennials.”

  3. Dan G.

    As a (begrudging) member of the Millennial generation, I feel I have to defend myself from over-generalization. It seems that Brooks only felt the need to interview young adults with very narrow worldviews from some of the most elite universities of the country. Although he admits as much in his opening paragraph, he then proceeds to use only a handful of their comments to draw a picture of my generation as listless, angry and entitled.

    Not one of those kids mentioned 9/11, or at least Brooks doesn’t deem to include it in any of his direct quotes. To those of us in the older end of our generation, this was THE defining moment of our formative years (our “Kennedy Moment”, if you will), and has exacerbated the true challenges of our generation: unchecked expansions in Executive power leading to endless war-making, safety/security theater from the TSA to police militarization, and runaway deficit spending. All of these problems existed before 2001, but have come into much clearer focus since then. Once we force all the Baby Boomers out of public office, maybe we’ll have the collective will to fix some of their mistakes.

    Also, this idea that America is imperfect isn’t new; it was one of the core principles on which our Constitution was built. As times and attitudes change, we collectively have the power to change our government to match. Any college senior who doesn’t understand this needs to retake high school civics.

    1. SHG Post author

      Now this was the sort of comment I hoped would come of this post. First things first. The reason stereotypes exist is because they’re stereotypes, which by definition means they’re generally accurate while not necessarily being accurate for any individual. You may be Millennial, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a stereotypical Millennial. And indeed, many are not. While your generation abhors stereotypes (get the irony, right?), there’s no reason to take it personally or to feel compelled to argue that a stereotype is just a stereotype. That’s obviously true, hence the word.

      America isn’t perfect and never has been. The question is what to do to make it better. Each generation does what it thinks will help, but we build upon the past and, hopefully, learn from past mistakes. That’s where Millennials scare the hell out of me. Rather than learn from the past, they’ve bought into an untenable narrative that everything old is evil, racist, sexists, systems of oppression, and is therefore bad and should rejected. Like what? Like bourgeois values, for example. Like hard work, responsibility, family, education, grit, tenacity, loyalty, duty, etc.

      You want to help minorities and women overcome discrimination? Me too! But making everything about racism and sexism won’t accomplish that, as the expectation that white males (and their allies) will turn over the keys to their house and car, give up their jobs, the food on their table to feed their kids, will never happen. And it shouldn’t. So instead of thinking you’re going to create a half-baked Nirvana by ignoring present and past reality, screaming discrimination at the top of your lungs on social media and hating on everybody who violates the woke-rules, why not build a world that can feed, clothe, house and provide a happy future for everybody.

      A rising tide lifts all boats. Raise up those you care about without tearing down those you don’t. Life is pretty good. There are lots of fun things to do. Enjoy it. Make it better. Stop being miserable and hating everything and everyone.

      1. Dan G.

        Thanks for the pep talk, grandpa, but we’ll take it from here.

        *Peels out in an all-electric car while sucking down a vape pen and blasting progressive bango alt-rock*

    2. B. McLeod

      Or “take” high school civics. Thirty nine states require some form of civics class, but only eight include civics on any standardized test, and of those eight, California is the only one that is a “large” state in terms of its population. So, many of your generational peers do not know what this is.

    3. wilbur

      Just an observation on a well-done post.

      The Kennedy Assassination occurred when I was in fourth grade. It was certainly memorable. It got my attention then and I remain interested in it.

      But it was no way a defining moment for me or anyone else I knew. It was part of a tapestry of events, local, national and global, that combined to form my world view, a view which has naturally evolved over the rest of my life. By the passage of a year, I thought about it as much as I do now, which not often.

      It has never defined me. That’s a cliché.

      1. SHG Post author

        Me neither. Curious, though, that it’s a terrible event they latched onto rather than, say, Woodstock.

  4. JRP

    I would wager that other than being from 30 countries they also come from rich households who pampered them and don’t know how good they have it. I would be interested in this same conversation at big state school with students who are the first generation to make it to higher education.

    George Carlin did a skit on soft names. I’m willing to bet there are a lot of “todd, kyle and tucker’s” in this class.

      1. JRP

        Nah, anyone can be bad at self- actualization. But if you’ve been hungry your more likely to do anything you can to not be that way again. Take opportunites for the preperation meeting luck they are and be happy for societies that give you some chance.


        (Not justin)

  5. John Barleycorn

    Too, funny!

    Wait until the “kids” figure out they are currently looking at a somewhere around a 220 ttt-Trillion dollar fiscal gap which is approximately twice the entire planets GDP, sprinkle in the unfunded liability spectrum AND you gots- to-wonder if you and Mr. Brooks aren’t going shopping for sassy suits this afternoon.

    Should be fun, If you needs… I know a Bolshevik turned small-a-anarchist tailor just off W 35 Street. She can cut you two a suit, that won’t get you clubbed when the both of you have to start rolling with the up-and-coming socialist sect, if you can make it down there by four or so. She only takes new clients on the first Friday of the month.

    Heck, after she measures you two up you can go have a beer around the corner and contemplate the up-and-comming rebellious Harvard educated dykes with dreadlocks from the Hamptons who might learn to roll with the fascists if they get a seat at the table.

    But whatever you do don’t wallow or you might miss that sneaky sensation of misery on he horizon.

    P.S. I know you would do almost anything to get a slot but isn’t pandering to Mr. Brooks sense of status a bit over the top? Kind of endearing if you were going for the cute puppy angle but really?

  6. Dick Taylor

    So the lesson is that the “best colleges” are producing students who are emotionally unsuited for challenge and historically illiterate? Perhaps Mr. Brooks is struggling with the concept of “best”.

    “You keep using that word. I do not think you know what that word means.”

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