The meritocratic generation

One year ago, David Brooks, noted social commentator, wrote an article in The Atlantic entitled “The Organization Kid.” This article struck a strong chord with me. Today, I would like to share some reflections I had on the article and on college life at Williams. For the sake of space, I can only provide a small synopsis of the article, but I urge everyone to take 30 minutes out of their schedule to read it.

The article is, in short, a glimpse of today’s students at elite colleges and universities. Brooks, in his wanderings at Princeton, saw that today’s students were much different than their predecessors. The students of the last two generations were defined by what they were reacting to, be it the Depression, the Civil Rights movement, the war in Vietnam or the Reagan Revolution.

Today, for Brooks, the students of the elite are defined by their drive to accomplish and self-improve. To quote the article, “They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it, and they are streamlined for ascent.” These students, the best of the cohort born between 1979 and 1982, in other words, you and I have been raised in such a manner to see that it is best to work within the boundaries of authority and to accumulate accolade after accolade in our life-long quest for improvement.

As a product of today’s meritocratic zeitgeist, students at Williams (like the Princeton of Brooks’ article) are molded into workaholics, driven by an ever-present need to achieve. This path was drawn for us by the generation of our parents, the Baby Boomers of the ’60s and ’70s. Their zeitgeist was one of rebellion and experiment. It was a time of radical social change. It saw the downfall of the old blue blood caste and the rise of a social elite based primarily on ability, not birth.

However, as a reaction to the rapid and confusing changes of this period, our parents’ generation sought to create a world in an image of theirs, but without the need of their children to go through the same confusing and chaotic experiences.

Our generation was spared the marks of the crash of ’29 and Pearl Harbor, the Feminine Mystique and the Chicago Seven, which were the driving forces behind the awesome social changes that took place in the United States in past generations. For a little while, I thought our generation may be defined by the climatic events of September 11, 2001.

Disturbingly, however, I’ve seen my peers take a blasé attitude towards the threats that terrorism poses and the war in Afghanistan. Unlike previous generations of leaders, ours is one that consistently deconstructs problems, holding skepticism as its primer and refusing to see issues in black-and-white terms. But I should be giving more credit to my generation – we do see some issues in black-and-white terms, such as “should I do my homework” or “should I try to make Mom and Dad proud of me?”

One of the conclusions Brooks came to in the article that caught my attention was how we turn our activities into vehicles for a future end instead of looking at an activity as an end within itself. This really came to me when I began to notice that my peers would burn themselves out by doing extracurricular activities. Too often, I see friends running from here to there, not considering why they’re running off to where they’re going.

In this new culture of hyper-achievement, it has become a sin to be lazy. Just to give a personal anecdote, I always make some time to watch the Dodgers or Lakers if they’re being televised out here. I view it as, to some degree, keeping in touch with people back home in Los Angeles. But all too often, when I’m watching the game on the couch in my common room, I’ll have a friend walk by and say hi. I’ll reply and ask them to join me.

Typically, I’ll receive an answer akin to “I’m too busy to watch television.” Or “I hardly ever watch television,” or “I haven’t seen television in two weeks.” I also get similar reactions when I passingly mention that I read for leisure. I’ve gotten comments such as “Oh, I used to do that when I was little, but I don’t have time for it now” or “I wish I could do that, but I guess I don’t have as much free time as you do.”

Certainly I can understand being busy, but I don’t know why my friends don’t make more free time for themselves. When do they enjoy being at college? When do you get to stop being a Williams student and start being a human being? I cannot understand how you cannot have enough time to read for leisure. Sometimes you just have to make time to preserve your humanity.

This is something that hit me a few months ago when I suddenly realized that I was working myself to misery. I wasn’t getting enough sleep, I didn’t get time to spend with my friends and, maybe worse of all, I didn’t get that time with myself that I have always appreciated.

I know that I used to tell myself “I’ll have more free time after I graduate.” But I have the suspicion that I’m not going to have a whole lot of free time after college. Is not college the time when you’re suppose to have free time? Time to do nothing. Time to just be. I’m not sure such notions hold much weight with the new generation.

The new ethos is not necessarily bad. It certainly has many improvements over previous ways of looking at the world. For example, we now measure our elite upon talent.

Avenues of opportunity have been opened for women and non-whites. Our new ethos is more tolerant of different ways of viewing the world. But still, there seems to be something missing. I’m not sure what it is – maybe a cause to fight for, maybe it’s just youth, or maybe I’m just blind to the obvious. But this worries me and I have no solutions. Or maybe I’m so enveloped by the new ethos that I cannot see beyond it.