It’s been my privilege, over the difficult weeks that followed September 11, to have had the opportunity to advise, instruct, and occasionally console the leaders of this nation. Now, it’s true that they won’t actually take up their leadership responsibilities for another 25 or 30 years. But when I lecture to the 316 juniors and seniors who’ve signed up for my class in Cold War international history at Yale, I can’t help but remember that four of the last six presidents of the United States attended that institution and sat in classrooms like my own.
Even if that track record doesn’t hold up, it’s still a good bet that I’ve got quite a number of future CEOs, cabinet officers, politicians, pundits, and perhaps presidents of other countries taking notes on what I say each Monday and Wednesday afternoon. So I’ve made it a point to try to get to know them. I’ve done this by setting aside one or more days a week to lunch with small groups of my undergraduates. There’s no set agenda: We talk about whatever’s on their minds, whether it’s the state of the nation and the world, career prospects, or just their problems with the course readings, the discussion sections, and the teaching assistants.
The first of these lunches this fall took place on Wednesday, September 12, and the students, still reeling from the shock of the previous day, wanted to know what I was going to say in class. I asked them what they thought I should say. They said they wanted an acknowledgment of the event, but no attempt at an instant analysis of it right then, since nobody knew all that much anyway. Instead they hoped that I’d go on with the lecture I’d prepared: They wanted as much normality as we could manage under the circumstances.
So I opened the class that afternoon by suggesting that September 11, 2001, was going to be for their generation what December 7, 1941, had been for their grandparents, or November 22, 1963, for their parents: It was the day when everything seemed to have changed, and indeed much had. But there were some things, I reminded them, that need not change, like faith in their God, faith in their country, faith in their family and friends, faith in themselves. I suggested that the best thing they could do in the face of new horrors was to reaffirm those familiar faiths and then to get on with the things they had come to Yale to do—such as getting an education, preparing for a profession, and falling in love. They looked at each other, relaxed, and smiled slightly, as if to say, yes, they could probably manage that.
"Something important is taking place, though, on our campus and at others around the country. A new generation is finding its way through its first big crisis, and it’s finding its roots as it does so."
Since that time, they’ve managed much more. The tone was set by a September 17 editorial in the Yale Daily News: "After September 11," it read, "we came of age as a generation. We agreed on an agenda. We faced the same enemy. And now the government is asking us: Will we serve? . . . We must answer the calling of our time—for if we don’t, who will?" This could as easily have been written in 1917 or 1941, a point not lost on the Wall Street Journal, which asked what it must be like for the "graying radicals" in the faculty lounges to see "hordes of students with American flags flying from their bicycles, sticking out of their backpacks, stuck in their pockets, or emblazoned on T-shirts with messages that promise ‘We Won’t Forget.’"
Like most of the Journal’s efforts to understand what happens at Yale, this is a caricature. Something important is taking place, though, on our campus and at others around the country. A new generation is finding its way through its first big crisis, and it’s finding its roots as it does so. I’ve found it especially interesting in recent weeks, therefore, to listen to what my students are saying and to take some notes myself.
"We’ve returned to normal lives in action, but not in thought," one of them commented. "We’re going to classes, getting too little sleep, complaining about how much work we have, but our lives have fundamentally changed since September 11." How? Well, consider a question another student asked one morning when I had several of them over for breakfast: "I’m going to say something that may offend some people, and I apologize if it does. But is it OK now for us to be patriotic?"
What lay behind the question—and the apology—a third student explained, was the fact that "the university holds at its center a culture of skepticism, . . . of looking at things from every possible angle, arguing pro and con, never being completely certain that we’ve come to the right decision. But on the other hand, we are being trained here, we are told, to be leaders. And leaders must always take a firm line and move forward and create action. So how do we reconcile these two things? . . . How do we reconcile what we might call patriotism—the desire to in some way stand out and do something—with what we might call cynicism, the feeling that maybe we can’t do that within the political culture of the United States?"
It’s a difficult question, and some of our students are attempting to answer by finding out how previous generations of Yale undergraduates did so. Student journalists are writing about the classes that interrupted their studies to fight World Wars I and II—and also about the classes that felt it to be their patriotic duty to oppose the Vietnam War. One of them told me she had asked Yale’s former chaplain, William Sloane Coffin: "How confused were you after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution? How did you know how to act? He said that peace was something that he believed in, right? So, it’s not history that tells you how to act. It’s your convictions that tell you how to act."
But what are the convictions that this generation of students can draw upon? Many have the sense that their education, thus far, hasn’t provided enough of them. "It’s dangerous to claim that there is no absolute truth," one student insisted, because "it defaults on a lot of the tough decisions, and it really misses what makes us great." Americans, he continued, had found at least one absolute truth: "That is the rightness and the justice of tolerance. . . . I think it’s probably the thing that makes the United States the most different . . . from any other enterprise that the world has ever seen."
Fair enough, but what are the limits of tolerance? "Who exactly is being included in this definition of ‘American’ that we’re constructing?" a Muslim American student asked in one of our conversations. "Are people who look like me, or perhaps have darker skin, who are not necessarily American mainstream—are they included?" Another student insisted that we could mourn the victims at the World Trade Center while still questioning the effects of globalization on the rest of the world: "This thing happened. If we’re going to keep it from happening again, that means we’re going to need to put all of our energy into trying to figure out why and how." Maybe so, a third student countered, but it was equally important to decide "whether we are for America or for terrorists."
Several of the students I’ve talked with worry about the extent to which our own university and others are out of touch with the rest of the country. The time had come, as one of them put it, to "moderate our rhetoric, and to realize . . . that the people we are speaking to . . . are more or less in the center. . . . I think the radicalization of university thinking stands in the way of our ability to effect change as an institution. . . . We feel so passionate about some things that it’s difficult for us to realize how big the consensus is between the right and the left."
"The most important thing we can do right now," another student concluded, "is to be actually discussing these matters on the basis of what we believe. It’s not enough to come to a consensus of a sort that, oh, killing is bad, that life is good. This is not something you can build a nation on. . . . We need to be talking about what kind of life is good, what makes life worthwhile. . . . Democracy doesn’t exist for democracy’s sake. It exists for people exerting power to make their country a better place. We have that power, and we should use it."
Several things strike me about these comments, which provide a fairly good sampling of what our students are saying to one another and to the faculty. First of all, they’re deeply serious. The events of September 11 have shaken this generation as nothing else in their experience has. Most of them were still in elementary school when the Berlin Wall came down or when the Gulf War broke out. They’ve not been exposed to danger or the need for sacrifice or the possibility that the good life most of them have taken for granted could be at risk. They’ve now been called upon, as previous generations have also been called upon at their age, to grow up fast—and they’re doing it.
Second, I’m impressed by the clarity with which our students are expressing themselves. This generation had not previously been known for the precision with which it speaks and writes, but suddenly it has found a voice. There’s remarkably little fumbling for words now and almost no tendency, thank God, to sink into the euphemisms of political correctness or to turn every declarative sentence into a question or to punctuate each phrase with that infuriating reassurance "you know." George Orwell made the connection between good prose and good politics a long time ago. Our students are beginning to make it, too.
Third, I’m struck by the urgency with which the students are trying to define patriotism. They don’t always agree on how it should be defined, but it’s suddenly become very important to try to find out for themselves what they think it means. In this sense, the Wall Street Journal is correct: You would not have seen this before September 11. For some patriotism is indeed flag waving; for others it’s a rediscovery of the old distinction between right and wrong; for still others it’s the idea of tolerance itself. In each instance, though, there’s a search for an anchor, for a center of gravity, that we haven’t seen at Yale for a very long time.
My fourth impression has to do with the "graying radicals" in the faculty lounges who are supposed to be so appalled by all this. No doubt some are, but I haven’t seen very many. The faculty, like the students, are a diverse group who hold diverse views, and these are also changing in the wake of September 11. I would say this, though: I don’t think we’re changing as fast as our students are. They’ve been quicker than we to see the need to put the university back in touch with the country, perhaps because so many of them now see the need to serve the country. It’s no longer assumed that when you graduate from Yale you’ll automatically go to graduate school or law school or to work on Wall Street. The careers I’m asked about now are the Foreign Service, the Central Intelligence Agency, and even the United States Marine Corps.
So should we, the faculty, be appalled by all this? I’m not: Indeed I consider it something of a success for us. For who ever said that the purpose of teaching was to turn out clones of ourselves? We rejected many of the values of our elders when we were young, so it shouldn’t bother us to see independent thinking among those who consider us their elders. Education, Isaiah Berlin once wrote, is a "temporary enslavement," a necessary evil for young people "until such time as they are able to choose for themselves." Its purpose is "not an inculcation of obedience but its contrary, the development of power of free judgment and choice."
That’s what our students have been exercising since September 11: the power of free judgment and choice. So the terrorists, in a way, have done us a favor. They’ve not only pulled together the most formidable international coalition against terrorism that the world has ever seen, but they’ve also given our next generation of leaders a reason to pull together themselves. The ones I know are well on the way to doing that.