Wednesday, June 10, 2009

And donít have any kids yourself


Students of poetry will recognize this column's title as the last line of Philip Larkin's famous poem, "This Be the Verse." It's a bleak little ditty about family pathology, but back when I taught it in undergraduate literature classes, my students loved it. They would ask if they could memorize it for extra credit.

No way, I would say. Knowledge is its own reward.

They would memorize the poem anyway, and would chant it in unison at the next class, substituting the words Kind Old Profs for Mum and Dad. Then I'd tell them that in their cases, knowledge was such a disproportionate reward that I had to pull out my grade book and give them all Fs for the day.

It was a lesson in Old Testament justice. Larkin's poem is a mocking allusion to Exodus 20:5, which says that Yahweh will punish the iniquity of the fathers unto the third and fourth generation. If, at the end of the semester, a student came to my office to complain about her grade, I would tell her to check her genealogy. "Your great-grandfather made Yahweh angry," I would say. "You're stuck with a C-minus for life."

I didn't really say that. But lately I have been pondering Larkin's poem when I read or lecture to undergraduates. The first thing I do when I get in front of a class of 21-year-olds is tell them to get good jobs after graduation because someone needs to pay for my Social Security.

I used to get laughs with that line. Now I get angry muttering. When I see unamused young faces in an audience, I can't help but think that they're being punished for Baby Boomer sins, and I'm a Baby Boomer, and they are starting to understand my generation did to their future what Philip Larkin said Mum and Dad did to you and me.

They face crushing debt if our financial system stays intact, and a salvage-and-barter economy if it doesn't. Energy shortages will restrict their mobility and eventually their Internet access. They will work in service industries with salaries and benefits far lower than those of their parents, and they'll probably caretake those same parents in return for being able to live back home in their old rooms, the rooms with the track ribbons and the Red Sox pennants and the Lamborghini posters on the wall.

They have reached adulthood in a world where the human population has overshot its resource base, and where capitalism has run up against the laws of thermodynamics. In a decade, people will be doing desperate things just to stay alive. The last fading bumper sticker on the last rusted SUV will read "My High School Dropout Ate Your Honors Student."

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The lesson being taught to young people in this country is that justice isn't fair. True, American justice has elements of fairness, based on the Classical Greek fetish for balance, but it also contains New Testament justice, which is based on love and forgiveness, and Old Testament justice, which is based on retribution and genes. We also have bin Laden and Cheney justice, based on destroying enemies, and justice based on wealth, which is for financial services CEOs. The rest of us are lucky to have Buddhist justice, based on nonattachment, and justice based on a conscious and careful witnessing of the world. Knowledge really is its own reward.

Of course, knowledge doesn't seem like a reward when the world has just handed you the short straw. You forget the joys of being a conscious witness. You slip back into an Old Testament mindset. You plan to get even with the people who have hurt you, an activity that doesn't leave much room for consciousness or even paying attention.

So far the students I encounter aren't plotting terrible revenge on the old farts who burned up their oil, killed and injured their friends in imperial wars, built suburbs on farmland and saddled them with unpayable debt. They're not talking about Soylent Green. Mobs of twenty-somethings aren't dragging terrified blue-hairs from Buick Enclaves and 7-series BMWs. They're still focused on ones and zeroes, which is to say that they are finding their FaceBook accounts and World of Warcraft more real than the world they eat and sleep in.

God have mercy on us all when they come out of that electronic haze.

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