Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Honey I Scared the Kids

This week I had the unique privilege of giving the keynote address at Rochester's School of the Arts inductance ceremony for their honors society. SOTA is one of the city school district's best efforts in an otherwise pretty beleaguered system. Anyone who has ever been to the annual dance concert or senior jazz band knows what these kids are capable of.

The ceremony begins with the lighting of a candle as a symbolic flame of knowledge. I had some general notes on what I wanted to say but that little flame, flickering on the table at the front of the stage, got me thinking.

So I told them I had bad news and good news. I told them that the bad news was that the light sputtering there before them could go out. I told them it often had in the past. The I told them the good news was they were going to make sure that it wouldn't go out now.

They didn't look to happy about that. Who would?

Every generation gets a name these days. The baby boomers. Generation X, Y and Z. Now maybe we are all Generation O. Deciding on that label can be a kind of self-indulgent exercise in collective naval-gazing but for the kids coming up now it may be an exercise in facing reality. Unlike the boomers and their flirtation with rebellion and the Gen X tendency to existential whining, the kids coming up now are staring down into something real, palpable and unpleasant. The world we left them is falling apart. After a 50,000 year experiment in self-consciousness and culture, they face the unique possibility of watching a newly formed global civilization collapse.

Pinned between climate change, resource depletion and a population that is simply more than this little world can carry, the next generation will face problems which the last few could not have dreamed of. We are about to pass through a bottleneck in our history as a species. We may squeeze through and come out on the other side. We may make it having learned something deep and lasting about what it means to be embodied intelligences enmeshed in a planetary ecosystem. We may also, collectively, screw the pooch and watch our project of civilization laid to ruin.

No way to know before hand.

So if this generation gets a name it may be one they aren't really looking for: the heroic generation. They may need to be heroic simply because so much will be asked of them. They may need to find their heroism as they are forced to endure changes and challenges that tax their creativity, intelligence and resolve.

I told them all this. I didn't intent to scare them but it seems to me immoral to leave them in the dark. How else can we expect them to understand the value of all that is symbolized in the little candle at the head of the table. How else might they understand how delicate this whole enterprise called democracy and law and learning really is.

Scholarship. Knowledge, Culture. The Arts. Compassion. You just can't pull em apart

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