January 30, 2008KR BlogEthics

The Old Become New Again

In today’s paper, David Brooks has an inspiring column about the Barack Obama campaign. Brooks recounts Monday’s endorsement, at American University, of Obama by Caroline and Edward Kennedy, the daughter and brother of the former president, whose benevolent spirit now seems to be overseeing the Obama campaign. I recall watching images of Bill Clinton and Al Gore tossing a football around, and thinking that perhaps they were trying (successfully) to evoke the days of the Kennedys, their famous touch football games, and their infectious optimism and good will. Clinton and Gore made it to the Whitehouse with a promise of something fresh and new, but the balance now seems to have shifted to the fresh face and promise of Barack Obama.

As Brooks recounts, Edward Kennedy invoked the days of the early sixties and the “idealism of the generation that marched in jacket and ties, the idealism of a generation whose activism was relatively unmarked by drug use and self-indulgence.” I’ve long thought that we do well to think of “the sixties” (which arguably lasted into the early seventies) as consisting of several phases and intertwining movements, some of which were more edifying than others. Brooks’s point about our own day is that we are seeing the rise of a generation with a marked respect for institutions and a deep desire to live lives of service, a generation that hearkens back to those idealistic and appropriately dressed marchers of the early sixties.

It’s not that any generation is without a desire to serve and contribute to the world, but rather that the style of language, customs, and culture that a given generation carries with it may more readily enable and inspire it to serve, to reach out to make some positive contribution to the world. Certainly, I am watching a younger generation coming up showing signs of such a desire. At the campus where I now teach, Lewis & Clark College, a young professor, Eban Goodstein, has inspired students not only here but at campuses across the country to participate in a teach-in–tomorrow, January 31–to raise consiousness about and inspire activism in response to gobal warming. (Earlier I wrote a blog about his book Fighting for Love in a Century of Extinction.)Professor Goodstein has been indefatigable in his efforts to make this national day of consciousness raising, called Focus the Nation, happen, but it could not have occurred without the full cooperation and active participation of thousands of students around the country. Never mind that students are also constantly volunteering in a great variety of service projects, as well as inventing new service programs of their own, as I also saw happening at Kenyon College during my years there earlier in the decade. If education is more than the inculcation of knowledge and skills (as important as these are), but also a matter of formation, then it seems to me quite fitting that service projects should be an integral part of college.

The parish that I belong to here in Portland is sponosring a refugee family from Burundi, and many, many people are stepping up to help in whatever ways they can. Among our great helpers are the students at the parish grade school, who have enthusiastically welcomed our new friends, as well as pooled their resources and energies to help supply them with some of their immediate needs. Perhaps the new communications technologies, including the World Wide Web, are reminding our young citizens that we are in fact living in a global village. Certainly television functioned very much this way for me when I was a kid in the sixties watching footage of the Vietnam war, campus demonstrations, and the moon landing. Perhaps people are more and more aware that we are world citizens in the way that Kwame Anthony Appiah describes in his Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006), world citizens who believe that “there are some values that are, and should be, universal, just as there are lots of values that are, and must be, local” (xxi). Perhaps our young people are reading Appiah, who lectured to a full house here at Lewis & Clark last year. Wherever this desire to serve is coming from, it’s certainly inspiring to see.