Hee are excerpts from a letter from Morgan Southwood, a graduate student, in Nevada, to Joe Bageant. Students today won't debate anything. I have a number of students who don't fit this description, yet most of them would, I think, accept this as a description of many of their classmates. I also think that Southwood's discussion bears upon the current postings on democracy at Long Sunday.
Most of my students are completely apolitical. They seldom watch the news and they seldom read newspapers. They get their synopsis of current events from Jay Leno and David Letterman. They are not rebellious; in fact, they usually make a great effort to get along with each other and be friendly in the classroom, to the point of not wanting to offend anyone else with their social/cultural opinions, which are viewed as being "relative" anyway -- everyone's opinion is "equally valid." I cannot get these kids to debate anything, because most issues are thought to be a matter of "personal interpretation." Postmodernism strikes again.
They are also very enthusiastic consumers. Generation X, at least, had anxiety and guilt about rabid consumption. Generation Y LOOOOVES to shop, I mean, they LOVE it. They like commercials, cell phones, electronic gizmos, all that shit. No hesitation at all. Most of them have credit cards. Credit card companies open up shop on the quad all the time and give out T-shirts and water bottles to people who sign up.
Many of them love pop culture. They love TV and video games. Popular music. There isn't much rebellion; most of them are very close to their parents -- the professors and teaching assistants remark frequently about "helicopter parents," or parents who "hover" around their grown children and still "take care" of them, to the extreme of petitioning teachers to change the student's poor grades so they don't lose a scholarship.
Consumerism as ideology manifests itself in the academy, an unfortunate development that I hear professors griping about on a regular basis. In my personal experience, for example, my students fill out "class evaluations" at the end of every semester, offering critiques of the class they have taken. You wouldn't believe how many of them view education as a commercial transaction, saying that they don't believe that they "should pay money to attend this required class (science, history, whatever in the core curriculum) that has nothing to do with my major." They seem to think that college is like Burger King -- Get It Your Way! There is much resentment against the core curriculum amongst the student body in the academy. Many students don't like being "forced" to study what they don't want to study, especially since they're PAYING for it.
This ethic has resulted in some universities eliminating their core curriculums and allowing students to cherry-pick their courses of study. Students leave college with huge holes in their education. Emerson? Homer? The French Revolution? Calvanism? Hobbes? Never heard of any of it.
In sum, I call Generation Y the "Anti-Boomers" -- in many ways, they are the opposite of their parents (when their parents were college-age). Emphasis on conformity (notice the amazing popularity of tattoos, for example -- the youth get tattooed to FIT IN now, instead of to stand out; it seems like I am the last young woman in America who does not have a tattoo), moral relativism, cheerful embracing of consumerism, etc. Interestingly, they are enamored with consumer culture and shopping, but they do not intelligently/eloquently advocate Capitalism -- it's like they are oblivious to the economic system. No militant defenders of Adam Smith or Keynes here.
The children of the baby boomers. I don't mind telling you, Mr. Bageant, that I am somewhat hostile to your generation, nothing personal. I often feel like they were asleep at the switch when my country turned into a huge goddamned chain-store strip mall and whatever genuine American culture we had got flushed down the crapper in favor of whatever the hell it is we have now. Not all of American culture was so great, Lord knows, Jim Crow, for example, was pretty revolting, and as a woman, I wouldn't have been able to get into many Ph.D. programs fifty years ago -- but it must have been nice to live in a nation without obesity, bluejeans worn as the national uniform, and Taco Bell from sea to shining sea.
Young people have never known anything else. Consequently, many do not expect or envision anything else. So, how are we going to work towards anything better when the Boomers fall from power in ten or twenty years? How can we preserve the Republic if we don't even know what it is? If the Republic even exists anymore. Usually, I think it's hanging by a thread. We are just barely civilized. Just ... barely. This experiment in liberal democracy and capitalism is grinding along like an old Ford with dirt in the motor.