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.
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.