If I say that we are a bored and boring generation, that we are unexcited and have little to be excited about, you can be forgiven for assuming that I’m out of touch, or at least unusually jaded.
Our generation, you might say, is perfectly capable of getting excited, and has more than enough to get excited about. And I’ll have to concede it: I remember how last November this campus erupted in singing and dancing and the blowing of trumpets. That’s hardly the way the Last Man behaves.
And youth like us, you might also say, should be especially excited. Just last month, President Obama addressed college students, declaring his faith in our ability to change the world and exhorting us to prove ourselves worthy of the “defining struggle of this generation.”
That’s not the language of an era overcome by ennui. It’s heroic language, of the sort that even the President’s opponents can’t help but delight in. It’s language in the tradition of Thomas Paine, whose words formed a nation dedicated to liberty, and of Martin Luther King Jr., whose words made it worthy of that dedication. There are overtones of Roosevelt, who led a depressed nation triumphant through Europe, and of Kennedy, who led us triumphant to the moon.
It’s easy to understand why such language was met with cheers and with a rally of resolve to see healthcare reform through. I can see, too, that some people would be opposed: it would hardly be a defining struggle if everybody was on board. But my own reaction — which seems to have been shared by almost no one — was a deep disappointment that the defining struggle of this generation should turn out to be a dispute over who pays how much of the doctor’s bills.
Not that healthcare reform is unimportant; even in the persona of a raving reactionary, one can see that our present system leaves a lot to be desired. But can that really be the most pressing concern of our time?
When Wordsworth wrote of the enthusiasms of his youth that “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” he recalled the spirit of an age concerned with far weightier issues than uninsurance rates. And even if we recoil from the bloody facts of the French Revolution, we can hardly avoid admiring a time filled with passionate debate and intellectual ferment, a time when the leading figures of a generation, chanting the slogan “Sapere aude,” went forward confident that they were inaugurating a new age of the mind.
The course of history is full of such ages of excitement. The rediscovery of logic in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance’s cultural efflorescence, and the artistic triumphs of 20th century Modernism — not to mention the intellectual ferment brought on by the scientific revolution — each filled their time with a sense that something new was on the way. And in manifestoes and works of art, in poetry and in politics, the excitement of those past times has been preserved to inspire us. There has been much greatness in history.
But when we turn to think of ourselves, and our own times, I don’t see how we can avoid concluding with a more mature and deradicalized Wordsworth that “there hath past away a glory from the earth.” They debated the nature of man and the purpose of society; we debate the relative merits of the public option versus insurance exchanges. Genius has been replaced by wonkery; there are countless plans, but nothing radical, nothing new. It’s as if the great debates have all been concluded, the eternal questions resolved or set aside, and it remains to us uninspired epigones only to work out the details.
Surely we can do better than that. Surely there’s some movement or some new theory worthy of our excitement. But what could win us over? Will there be another Marx, to transform our view of society, another Napoleon, to awe us with military might, or another St. Francis, to call us to spiritual renewal? Will we have another Reformation, another Renaissance, another Enlightenment?
It’s not a matter of nostalgia — though there’s plenty to be nostalgic about. But reverence for the past is paralyzing, unless we can see ourselves as worthy of the past’s legacy. Our generation needs to do more than rearrange the forms of the past, or muddle around predicting the future by graphs and tables. We need an ideal; we need some artistic vision, some cause worthier of our enthusiasm than “bending the curve” of healthcare spending. I don’t pretend to know what that might be. But we shouldn’t settle for less.
Because if no inspiring possibilities remain, if the human spirit can only rest on its laurels — if there is nothing new under the sun — then all is vanity, and a striving after wind. And that’s no way to live.
Kevin Gallagher is a junior in Pierson College.