I've been going around to campuses asking undergraduate and graduate students how they see the world. Most of the students I've met with so far are at super-competitive schools — Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago and Davidson — so this is a tiny slice of the rising generation. Still, their comments are striking.
The first thing to say is that this is a generation with diminished expectations. Their lived experience includes the Iraq war, the financial crisis, police brutality and Donald Trump — a series of moments when the big institutions failed to provide basic security, competence and accountability. "We're the school shooting generation," one Harvard student told me. Another said: "Wall Street tanked the country and no one got punished. The same with government."
I found little faith in large organizations. "I don't believe in politicians; they have been corrupted. I don't believe in intellectuals; they have been corrupted," said one young woman at Yale. I asked a group of students from about 30 countries which of them believed that the people running their country were basically competent. Only one young man, from Germany, raised a hand. "The utopia of our parents is the dystopia of our age," a Harvard student said, summarizing the general distemper.
It's not that the students are hopeless. They are dedicating their lives to social change. It's just that they have trouble naming institutions that work. A number said they used to have a lot of faith in the tech industry, but they have lost much of it. "The Occupy strategy was such a visible failure, it left everyone else feeling disillusioned," one lamented. "We don't even have a common truth. A common set of facts," added another.
The second large theme was the loss of faith in the American idea. I told them that when I went to public school the American history curriculum was certainly liberal, but the primary emotion was gratitude. We were the lucky inheritors of Jefferson and Madison, Whitman and Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy and King. Our ancestors left oppression, crossed a wilderness and are trying to build a promised land.
They looked at me like I was from Mars. "That's the way powerful white males talk about America," one student said. When I asked how they were taught American history, a few said they weren't taught much of it.
"In my high school education the American Revolution was a rounding error," one young woman said. Others made it clear that the American story is mostly a story of oppression and guilt. "You come to realize the U.S. is this incredibly imperfect place." "I don't have a sense of being proud to be an American." Others didn't recognize an American identity at all: "The U.S. doesn't have a unified culture the way other places do," one said.
I asked them to name the defining challenge of their generation. Several mentioned the decline of the nation-state and the threats to democracy. A few mentioned inequality, climate change and a spiritual crisis of meaning. "America is undergoing a renegotiation of the terms of who is powerful," a woman from the University of Chicago astutely observed.
I asked the students what change agents they had faith in. They almost always mentioned somebody local, decentralized and on the ground — teachers, community organizers. A woman from Stockton, Calif., said she was hoping to return there. A woman from Morocco celebrated the uneducated local activists who operate from a position of no fear. They are just fighting for the basics — education, health care and food. "We want change agents that look like us. We want to see ourselves moving the country forward," one Chicago woman told me.
The students spent a lot of time debating how you organize an effective movement. One pointed out that today's successful movements, like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, don't have famous figureheads or centralized structures. Some students embraced these dispersed, ground-up and spontaneous organizations. If they flame out after a few months, so what? They did their job. Others thought that, no, social movements have to grow institutional structures if they are going to last, and they have to get into politics if they are going to produce any serious change.
A woman from the Middle East at Yale's Jackson Institute noted that the Muslim Brotherhood spent decades debating whether to remain outside the system as a community organization or to go into politics. That was the sort of debate I saw playing out in front of me on campus after campus.
I came away from these conversations thinking that one big challenge for this generation is determining how to take good things that are happening on the local level and translate them to the national level, where the problems are. I was also struck by pervasive but subtle hunger for a change in the emotional tenor of life. "We're more connected but we're more apart," one student lamented. Again and again, students expressed a hunger for social and emotional bonding, for a shift from guilt and accusation toward empathy. "How do you create relationship?" one student asked. That may be the longing that undergirds all others.