Over the last week I caught up on two month's worth of newspapers and magazines. Read over of a couple of days, this fall's news seems especially dark. Terrorism, ugly politics, random killings and environmental degradation. We move through our days knowing that shocking things will happen and that we will learn about them in real time.
It was a rough fall and higher education was not spared as universities continued to weather intense flashes of conflict. Protests, calls for resignations, confusion and polarization.
What are we doing? What happens if one of our colleagues gets caught up in a campus controversy? Where they say something deemed politically incorrect, possibly revealing that they grew up in a society that grappled with sexism, racism, great social change and Cold War tensions. We know these experiences don't get wiped away like the cleaning of a hard drive.
What teaching choices do we have when speaking with students about our experiences? To carefully edit a 140-character message that will sputter out glib observations to faceless readers poised at their keyboards?
50 minutes in a classroom trying to inspire 15 students at 8 a.m. is a difficult task, getting harder and harder as the years accelerate. Students have difficulty leaving internet connectivity at the classroom door and we wonder if we will say something that might offend.
As a child of the 60s and 70s, I was surrounded by phrases like "This could be the big one," "Keep it up and you're going to start world war three," "Everyone get under the desk right away," "Hogan-n-n-n." and "This is the big one! I'm comin' Elizabeth!" A jumble of ideas about the apocalypse, science, death and evil.
Our parents and grandparents were fearful. They would say things about Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the six million dead Jews. The horror stories were shared by trusted sources, shaped so we would be inspired to make sure it never happened again. The years passed by, but the spirits of the 50 million killed in the first half of the century swarmed all around us. Certain prejudices were not subtle, but there seemed to be a march toward truth, fairness and freedom.
Do our children have that? They view ISIS beheadings on YouTube. They read about Holocaust conspiracy theories on Wikipedia. How are they supposed to distinguish what is really happening or what is truly evil? They watch presidential candidates guffawing about World War III, killing, stupidity, etc., and it all becomes one big ironic and on-demand mash-up.
This is not like getting up early on Saturday, doing my chores, taking down the Wheaties for breakfast, and counting the minutes when the Indian-head test pattern on our black-and-white television changed into cartoons. This is different. This is a slow burn, cooking below all of us. A cacophony of the frivolous and the horrific.
There were many books in my childhood home. One of them was Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. The first-person concentration camp survival story burned through me at the age of 12, right through to the existential core that may be in each of us. When we say, "Why bother," or " I don't see the point of it all," or "Why do people kill each other?"
But then I would put the book up on the shelf and go outside and play baseball. Baseball played until sunset. We cheered when our dad took time to hit us pop-ups at dusk. Not quitting until we saw fireflies, and then rolling into bed in clothes stained by the green weeds of our makeshift field, where hitting the barn was an automatic homer and the cover over the well served as third base.
We made due. Everyone in that small town did. The maps at our school were out of date: no Israel, just a pink Palestine. Little did we know about the lines that had been carved across cultures, rivers, mountains and faiths at the end of the two wars.
More than 30 years later I read Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. The patterns of events leading up to WW II and the noble response by world leaders afterward. There is an arc to the story. The victory of good over evil. There was nothing dignified about the concentration camp photos, we all knew that.
There was also nothing dignified about the McCarthy hearings, Stalin's reign, Vietnam, or the assassinations of John, Robert and Martin. Did we struggle after WW II? Yes, but good prevailed because we collectively recognized that we had crossed lines regarding the dignity of the person that should never be crossed again.
What is constantly pressing against our students in 2016? Climate change, mass migration, religious extremism, social stratification, and the sustained medicated state of so many of our young. Who created all of this? Not our students. They toggle between pop stars' Twitter feeds and the procedural investigation of the San Bernardino terrorist killings.
All around them decay, revolt, brinksmanship, and extremism. Why are we so surprised when they buckle under the weight of this and call us out on whatever politically correct themes are trending? Is it naive youthful rebellion or is it a symptom of drinking from a fire hose of stupefying horror and inflammatory screeching?
Let's own what we have created and embrace the responsibility that we still have to nurture safe spaces for character formation and inquiry. We had Underdog and Sanford and Son. They have ISIS, gender identification, and escalating overdose and suicide rates, delivered into their phones while they sit in our classes. Things can be bonkers, for sure, but why pile on? There are already enough Howard Beales in the world.
Our parents were flawed. They took us to McDonald's for Sunday dinner, let us play with mercury, and smoked cigarettes with the car windows up while we sat, unbuckled, in the back seat. But their generation knew certain things should never happen again.
Do we have that same focus and conviction? Are we helping our students see the patterns around them? Protests, petitions, sit-ins. If that's what it takes to have real conversations, so be it. This is what we signed up for when we chose higher education as our vocation. Let's listen, really listen, to our students and consider their search for meaning. What is their gathering storm? What do they know that we have missed, our senses dulled by so many things?