Offering a hand over the generational divide
30 and making a trade-off: lose some authority and gain some trust.
freshman orientation at Brandeis University in 1964, I sat in terror
while an upperclassman named Joel Doerfler described the state of
relations between the students and the college administration. It
was all-out war.
will be pitted against the slickest operators in the business,"
he told the incoming Class of 1968. "Some of you will quite
literally 'live in fear.' But think not of your transgressions as
acts of moral disobedience, but rather as creative victories. Get
away with as much as you can, but don't get caught."
speaker's immediate rage was directed at a particular campus policyrestricting
male and female students from entertaining each other in their rooms.
But his words were intended also as an introduction to the inescapable
facts of inter generational life: adults in positions of power were
dangerous. They didn't understand anything. They were the enemy
and must be treated as such.
Doerfler didn't enter my mind for more than three decades, but memories
of his speech suddenly came back as I watched my daughter's orientation
to the Class of 2005 at Oberlin, a few hours down the road from
Brandeis, but culturally and demographically much the same.
to say, there was no Joel Doerfler inciting freshmen to rebel against
sexual rules. Those rules fell a long time agoin fact, before
my own class had even graduated. But what struck me this time wasn't
the attitude of the students, it was the posture of the adults.
college yearsat one of the most politically liberal institutions
in America at that timewere marked by daily collisions between
nervous post-adolescents and middle-aged adults struggling to maintain
authority: a registrar who barked out sarcastic directions to bewildered
freshmen trying to understand course requirements; distinguished
faculty who invited questions and then humiliated the questioners;
stern deans with crew-cuts who warned that violating the rules meant
an indelible smudge on a permanent record.
are gone now, all of them. In their place are professors and deans
who come from my generationpeople for whom it is a social
error to treat students with even a trace of rudenesslet alone
arrogance or condescension. They have reached the age at which one
might finally be able to intimidate the young, but that is the last
thing they wish to do. What they want is to be nice people.
need to take some risks and get to know each other," Oberlin
president Nancy Dye told the freshmen "Each of us needs to
respect each others' differences." The dean of students urged
parents to "contemplate your own first day of college, remembering
your own cluelessness and feeling grateful that your son or daughter
seems to have a better grip than you did." I don't recall any
adult saying things like that in 1964.
sat in the balcony of Finney Chapel listening to all the professions
of adult niceness and was amazed to find myself thinking of the
climactic line from Roberto Benigni's film, Life is Beautiful.
"This," the narrator says, "is the sacrifice my father
made for me."
It sounds like a bizarre comparison. The father in that movie gave
up his life so his son could survive a Nazi concentration camp.
My generation is, after all, known not for sacrifice but for self-indulgence.
But we have made one sacrifice worth talking about. We have given
up our authority so our children can cross into the adult world
without being terrified. We welcome them into that world with smiles
and helpful directions. We have dismantled the adversarial culture
that prevailed between generations on college campuses and in the
rest of society in our youth. This is the sacrifice we have made
is no small sacrifice. In tearing down the old cultural wall that
separated adolescent and adult we have given up some valuable things.
Most of the adults who ruled during my youth used their authority
to communicate a coherent set of values that their children could
either accept or reject, once they grew up. My generation has difficulty
doing that. When we talk about traditions and values, even those
of a proud college nearly two centuries old, we do it with a bow
toward the ironic sensibilities of the teenagers we have just raised.
It's hard to serve up tradition straight any more. That's a loss
that deserves at least a moment of mourning.
it's equally difficult to visit a campus these days without thinking
seriously about the gains. The adults and the kids don't seem like
creatures from different planets. They may not speak quite the same
language, but they share cultural trappings in a way that we and
our parents never did. My daughter and I both know the lyrics to
"American Pie." That doesn't erase the realities of generational
difference, but it does make the whole notion of parental and pedagogical
intimidation difficult, if not ludicrous.
of us have lost the ability, as middle-aged adults in the 21st century,
to make a credible case to our children about eternal truths. What
we can do instead is smile at them, joke about our own failings,
tell them to relax, have a nice day, answer their e-mail, and learn
something in the process if they can.
older I get, the more that seems like a decent trade.
Ehrenhalt is the father of Oberlin student Elizabeth Ehrenhalt.
He is the executive editor of Governing Magazine and author
of The United States of Ambition and The Lost City.