Friday, January 1, 2010
The next "Greatest Generation"
(Left: Edward Gibbon. Right: Neil Howe)
The great historian Edward Gibbon famously remarked that history is "little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortune of mankind," and the decade just past is a perfect example.
It started out with acrimony and division over the Bush/Gore election and its legal aftermath, and it ended with acrimony and division over health care, global warming, and the rage that some people feel about having a black man in the White House.
In between, we had a traumatic terrorist attack, two wars, an economic collapse, countless sex scandals, and the death of a great American city from a combination of indifference and incompetence. (But hey, Brownie did a heckuva job.)
Gibbon was writing about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and there are a lot of people who are worried that our own empire is going the same way.
But I see a ray of hope - actually, millions of them - and they're right under our noses.
I'm talking about the younger generation, of course. Let's face it: You and I are creatures of the past. Every day that goes by, we count less and less.
But these kids are the future. They, not we, will determine whether computers turn out to be our servants or our masters, or whether genetic engineering turns us into Frankenstein's monsters. They are the ones who will have to cope with climate change, the destruction of the rainforests, the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the frightening rise of fundamentalist extremists in every religion, not just Islam.
I have a friend named Neil Howe, who, along with his co-author, the late Bill Strauss, wrote a series of fascinating books ("Generations," "13th Gen," and "Fourth Turning") that trace an amazing 4-generational cycle that repeats itself in American history, over and over again.
Every four generations, they say, we get what they call a "heroic" generation. We're all familiar with the last one: the G.I.'s and Rosie the Riveteers. From Steven Spielberg to Tom Brokaw, we are heaping honors on "The Greatest Generation" even as they are slipping away from us. And we beat our breasts, wondering how we can ever live up to them.
Well, good news: Neil says this current crop of kids - the Millennials - show every sign of being another heroic generation, just like the G.I.s. If you're looking for Private Ryan, she's a senior in high school.
So what are we doing to get them ready? Just listen to the debates in Washington and Sacramento. Everybody is pushing their own pet projects, but nobody is speaking up for the Millennials.
Why are we slashing elementary and high school budgets and raising the fees at the University of California? Why do we still see kids selling raffle tickets to buy uniforms (or even worse, instruments) for their school band? Are we going to stiff another generation the way we did the Gen-Xers?
When I was their age, California had the best public schools in the country, routinely ranking first in both reading and math scores. Today, we're near the bottom, along with states like Louisiana and Mississippi.
And back then, every high school senior in California was guaranteed a free education all the way through college. The best students got a free (and I do mean free - no tuition or fees) four years at one of the U.C. campuses; the others got a free ride at one of the state colleges.
Is it too much to ask why it can't be that way again?
Mind you, there are a lot of other issues affecting children that need our attention, too, including child abuse, gun control and the creeping vulgarization of our culture. But the schools are a good place to start.
This generation, in FDR's words, has a rendezvous with destiny. Let's make sure they keep that appointment.