On Wednesday evening President Obama addressed the country to inform us that the war in Afghanistan was winding down and would be ended ‘responsibly.’ 10,000 troops will return this year, and another 23,000 by the middle of 2012. He neglected to say that over 65,000 would still be there, promising only to continue the draw down as security responsibility is handed over to the Afghans, with a goal of completing the process by 2014. A NATO/Afghan conference next May will work through the details.
Thursday morning in Summer Experience the class watched a shaky Youtube video of Obama’s speech, and critiqued it having read a number of pieces about war, and an article by Howard Zinn about our double standard when it comes to violence. Students were uniformly critical of the wars, though some said they understood why we went into Afghanistan in 2001 before Iraq pushed us off course. It’s interesting how in 2001-04 students showed a strong burst of patriotism and support for even the Iraq war, which by 2006 had shifted to anger about the on going wars, and since 2009 or so has become a kind of an apathetic cynicism. One fascinating aspect of teaching is seeing how attitudes can quickly change with new groups of college students.
Another piece we read was about Kent State. Most students don’t know what happened in May 4, 1970 when the Ohio National Guard killed four students and wounded others when confronting an angry student protest. To give background I played some of President Nixon’s speech announcing the invasion of Cambodia, which he gave on April 30, 1970. That speech sparked the protests that led to the shootings. What students noticed (and I hadn’t really expected) was the similarity between some of what each President said. Nixon was also announcing a draw down of forces from Vietnam, over 100,000. His explanation (have the Vietnamese take over responsibility for their own security – Vietnamization) and rhetoric about the US role was often similar to what Obama said. To be sure, Obama didn’t announce the invasion of another country, though one student noticed the parallel between the importance of Cambodia in that war, and Pakistan in the current one.
They were shocked about the protests and especially the fact live ammo would be used on students. One student compared that to China at Tienanmen Square, though clearly the scope was far less. They were surprised that many people even supported the shootings at the time, and said that this is another example of groups of people not understanding each other and thus rationalizing conflict and violence.
We ended up discussing the conditions my generation is handing off to them: a number of on going wars that need to be ended (they’ve cost over $1 trillion so far), government debt that started growing dramatically in the early eighties, private debt and credit card debt that has grown even faster (the public has mirrored the government in that regard), the current account deficit that has made the dollar and the US very vulnerable to outside shocks, and the growing gap between the rich and poor. I showed the charts that showed that the wealthy have done very well during the last thirty years, while the middle class and poor have actually lost ground. Finally, we talked about energy and touched yesterday on the environment.
Most of the problems, especially the economic ones, are rooted in choices made in the early 80s after the last recession when tax rates were cut and spending/debt increased. Thirty years of imbalances, and these 18 year olds now have to face the fact that unless this gets fixed, their future will not be as comfortable as the lifestyles enjoyed by the previous generation. They expressed disdain for the ideological bickering between the political parties and said that if people listened to each other (the point of a Walter Lippmann piece they read for today), we’d realize that the problems were real and we have to solve them.
It also seems that in a world of constant communication and technical sophistication, the allure of ideological thinking is fading. The reality of the problems we face and the messes such thinking has caused in the past presents them with a challenge: their future depends on shifting our political and economic thinking in a profound manner. We discussed the naive thinking of economic ideologues — those on the left who think government can plan and run an economy without markets, and those libertarians who think markets are magic and can operate without regulation and the state. A little common sense can cure such ideological blindness, and for all the faults people find with the ‘facebook generation,’ they seem to have little patience for putting theory ahead of reality.
I’ve taught summer experience for 12 years now, starting in 2000 in the midst of the dot.com crash. In the late 90s many students had bragged about making money through day trading and some thought they might never have to work since their investments could just keep proliferating. In the years since as technology progressed and the country has gone through extended wars and now a deep recession, I find myself more impressed than ever by the young people heading into college. There seems to be more pragmatism behind youthful idealism (I can’t imagine them burning down ROTC buildings and the like, regardless of how opposed they might be to a war), a willingness to consider and try to understand a variety of perspectives (I credit both the internet and globalization with this) and even improved knowledge about world events.
I hope my faith in the new generation is well placed, since I am losing faith in mine to actually start listening to each other and working for compromise and a pragmatic solution of the serious problems we face. If ideological screaming by the left and right continues, with elections zig zagging between parties as the public becomes frustrated by the inability to collaborate on creative solutions, we’ll need young people to come forth with new solutions. And, given their command of technology and the information revolution, they just might be able to do it — it’s not just Egypt that needs the youth to rise up and demand change!