A Rising Generation Seeking to Understand the World
Tom Dorrance, upper school history teacher

Upper school history teacher Tom Dorrance shared the following remarks at the Class of 2021 graduation. 

Sixty years ago, a group of students gathered to revise a statement of values and principles written by then 22-year-old Tom Hayden. The Port Huron Statement began not with a statement of intent, but one of positionality: “We are the people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

About 50 years earlier, in another statement of generational discomfort, 25-year-old Walter Lippmann wrote in his Drift and Mastery about a country he saw as incapable of managing the excesses of modernity. His goal was to show how the anchors of tradition proved an ill fit for a “giddy and reeling universe.” 

“It is not fair to claim that we who attack absolutism are robbing life of its guarantees.” Lippmann stated. “It is far truer,” he continued,” to say that the enlargement and ferment of the modern world have robbed absolutism of its excuse.”

Both documents are statements highlighting the discomfort of change, when older certainties have suddenly become hollow and superficial, embers of smoldering fires. They are neither fearful nor apocalyptic, they are, most of all, statements made by a rising generation seeking to understand the world they were poised to enter. They are giddy in the best sense, reveling in the possibilities of change and in the audacity of feeling like one can take part in shaping those changes.

History for me has always been, at root, a lens to view the present as temporary and malleable rather than fixed and timeless. In preparing this speech, I found myself less interested in dispensing wisdom from my own life’s experiences and more drawn to the wisdom that comes from new eyes looking at the world as it should be, to moments where young voices rose from the din of historical change to challenge what they saw as a sense of complacency and give voice to their own feelings of urgency in breaking free from the weight of the past.

Now…(this might come as a surprise to you all, but) I am hardly a member of a new generation looking at a world ready to be inherited. Likewise, I use the examples from Drift and Mastery and the Port Huron Statement because I think their flaws are almost as informative as their strengths. The principal authors for each were white men writing from relative material comfort. The discomfort they describe comes from a place of privilege. So, consider this a brief guided reading where we consider both the power and the perils of these youthful statements of passion and optimism…let’s dive in.

“Absolutism,” Lippmann told his readers, “quiets the uncertainties of the soul…But in liberal thought.” He continued, “There is chaos for it lacks the foundations of certainty.” 

The challenge of modernity, for Lippmann, was a crisis of purpose. “Without a tyrant to attack, an immature democracy is always somewhat bewildered,” Lippmann stated. Lippman described his generation as one that had inherited its freedom only to discover the paralyzing effect of aimlessness. “If we flounder,” he concluded, “it is not because the old order is strong, but because the new one is weak.”

Lippmann’s antidote to drift was mastery pursued through the application of reason and scientific method. “We can no longer treat life as something that has trickled down to us,” Lippmann told his readers. “We have to deal with it deliberately, devise its social organization, alter its tools, formulate its method, educate and control it.” 

Now, I know we are all here good students of history and we know, with our own certainty, the hubris that comes when notions of objectivity and rationality serve the purpose of subjective articulations of perfection. The progressive era, when Lippmann came of age, was a time of enormous creativity as reformers attempted to reconcile the tradition of American democracy with the centrifugal impulses of modernity. But the drive to build a perfect society contains its own seeds of conformity, and scientific rationality could and did legitimate draconian methods of social control.

The horrors of the twentieth century, Stalinism, the atom bomb, and Holocaust have given us all an awareness of the dangers of ideological crusades rooted in a certainty of belief and righteousness. It is not surprising that those who had lived through the years of war, depression, and more war valued pragmatism over idealism as they rejected the reform impulse of progressivism. This was the world the writers of the Port Huron statement looked at with uncertainty and discomfort. While not blind to the history that came before it, the Port Huron statement is, I think, above all else a reminder of the cultural costs that come when a commitment to “realistic thinking” crowds out all other forms of thought.

“For most Americans, all crusades are suspect, threatening,” the writers of the Port Huron Statement asserted. Yet for these authors, it was not absolutism and tradition that stood in the way of change, it was rationalism and pragmatism. 

“To be idealistic is to be considered apocalyptic, deluded,” the writers contended. “To have no serious aspirations, on the contrary, is to be "tough-minded." The problem with tough-mindedness, as illustrated in the Port Huron Statement, is that while “realistic thinking” might provide a useful roadmap for navigating structures already in place, it offers little in the way of forming questions about the basic assumptions underlying those structures. It calcifies the status quo into a timeless certainty, robbing life of its sense of malleability and, more importantly, robbing us of our own sense of agency in effecting change.

For those waiting in suspense, the student radicals of the 1960s were not able to bring about a democratic utopia. The sense of individual fulfillment at the root of the document’s statement of values became too easily unmoored from the communal foundations of participatory democracy and our morality stories of the 1960s tend to focus more on the hedonism of the era than the promise of a democratic way of living.

So where does that leave us? First, I don’t think one needs to actually achieve utopia for utopian thought to be effective. In our current world where dystopian aesthetics seem far more pervasive, I think it takes real courage to speak seriously of utopias. 

One of the things that both documents do quite well is revive the sense of America as some grand experiment. The framers of our system of government were radicals and pragmatists. Their pragmatism, I think, stemmed from the sheer audacity of the experiment that they were undertaking: “Is it possible for a Government to be permanently maintained without privileged classes, without a standing army, and without either hereditary or self-appointed rulers?” 

These words came from a newspaper article in 1860 when it felt like the experiment might be reaching its conclusion. We might add to that list of questions: Is it possible to balance democracy with the social and environmental costs that come with material prosperity? Is it possible to find meaning in a work life growing increasingly technologically complex? Is it possible to create a sense of citizenship imbued with spirit and meaning that is not grounded in an exclusive ethno-cultural nationalism? 

I think we need the courage to answer, “Yes,” to these questions without having a clear vision of how we might do these things. And this, finally, is where I think one of our own superpowers as a school is particularly relevant. Looking out at your faces now, I’m reminded of so many exciting and surprising conversations. At the root of them all is a sense of curiosity and a desire for understanding….not mastery, but understanding. And it’s a special understanding, utopian almost in its orientation. More often than not, the conversations I’m thinking of were less about navigating conditions in place and more about understanding why they were in place, questions about the assumptions underlying the “common sense” way of doing things. So, in closing, nurture that superpower of curiosity, don’t be afraid of the vulnerability that comes from seeking understanding rather than mastery, and, don’t be afraid to speak seriously of utopian ambition.

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