Another Thanksgiving, feeling like a dinosaur! Aunts and uncles were peppering Emilia about where she’s applying, what career she’s set on, and which major will prepare her for it. She cut all that off, loudly asking me, “Grand Dad, what was Columbia like back in the day?”
I tried to joke how I wouldn’t get in now as I hadn’t published three books, started my own company, and figured out how to save the bees. Em ignored my satire and asked whether I’d been a radical student in the 60s. I told her about occupying Low our senior year, and how you got clobbered by New York’s finest, and asked Em why she and her peers weren’t taking to the streets. “It’s not as if there’s nothing to protest!”
Em rolled her eyes. “Grandpa! What’s the point! Maybe then you thought government could solve problems. Who does now? Like everything else, they’re just part of the mess. Sure, we worry about lots, big time. But Washington won’t help. Politicians are in the lobbies’ pockets. No one is going to fix anything. Pete Seeger and his Clearwater Project can try to clean up the Hudson, but the mess is too big, too complicated. Next year I can vote, but so what. It’s a choice between evils.”
I was dumbfounded. Where to begin? Others were no help, clucking away about political stupidity, business greed, and how even philanthropy was nothing but a way for the rich to feel good. Vast public problems concern Em, but the kid has no sense of the public itself. But how could she? All her life, the market and self-interest have drowned out the public and appeals to common interest. How would she form the vocabulary to talk about the public interest? All she’s heard is how the public will bankrupt each of us. What do citizenship and democracy mean in the twenty-first century?
Well, I should know that Thanksgiving dinner isn’t the time to tackle such questions. But can we answer them at all? Meg sends her best to you and Elaine.
If the young are to reconstruct a coherent vision of public life, they need to do so in a sustained, thoughtful discussion, not about their personal preferences and interests, not about the costs and benefits of contending policies, but about an effort to form basic principles of meaning and purpose. Letters of Recommendation shows powers of intelligent judgment continuously forming through reflective interaction between persons who recognize that their differences of age, situation, and character are the real sources from which shared understanding can emerge.
Online booksellers carry Letters — Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Tower Books — and your favorite bookstore can order it for you — Letters of Recommendation by Maxine McClintock is published in The Reflective Commons (New York: Collaboratory for Liberal Learning, 2013). ISBN 978-1-937828-004, $24.95.