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AT THE midpoint of the Class of 1990's Harvard career, the Reagan era closed with a benediction for the generation it has nurtured into adulthood. Broadcast to the national Republican convention in New Orleans was a final injunction. "Don't Worry, Be Happy."
For four years, many of us who graduates today took that banal, complacent recommendation from singer Bobby McFerrin to heart. On campus, we abstracted ourselves from the contradictions of daily life, trying to stay happy.
The tradeoffs began when we spent small fortunes to pursue an education that promised us an intellectual "good life" independent of financial reward. They continued as we passed between the Edenic Yard, with its manicured lawns and gardens, and Cambridge streets, with their community of the homeless. And some of us nurtured a "liberal intellect" while maintaining membership in clubs long known for their elitism, social exclusivity and sexual and racial bias.
Yet even if we did ignore the few lingering campus activists and paid scant attention to the social problems that swept up to the very edges of campus--such as homelessness, AIDS, racism an poverty--none of us today can escape the questions: What should we do with the benefit of a Harvard education? Do we have an obligation to fulfill?
THE peculiar experience of the Class of '90 is that the formative events of our youth occurred amid conscious efforts at national carelessness. From the 1987 financial crash, to the 1988 presidential election, to the brought-to-you-by-TV revolutions abroad of 1989, we lived the era of Change via Remote control. The program trading of computers, the media-manipulating spin-doctors and the unforeseen uprising of millions abroad conspired to take events out of our hands. And we were content to let them.
The Class of '90 grew up largely anesthetized in a country engaged in the "feel-good" dream inspired by that living Marlboro Man, Ronald Reagan. The irony, of course, is that none of the dilemmas that confront the U.S. today were unforeseeable a decade ago. The education crisis in the cities, the research lag of domestic industry in international competition, the savings and loans bankruptcies, Iran-Contra, even the public deficit, all stem from neglect.
To aim closer to home, Harvard, too, indulged in the feel-good daydream and suffered for it. Most of the Class of '90 arrived in Cambridge days after he University's sprawling week-long party for its 350th birthday. Coming after the shamelessly commercial Los Angeles Olympic ceremonies and the orgiastic Statue of Liberty commemoration, Harvard spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on flag-waving majorettes, fireworks, concert orchestras and multimedia projections in The Stadium.
Far from sight were Harvard's own nationally publicized problems: a decaying tenure system ethically troubling relations between the professional schools and industry, the unrestrained growth and investment of a burgeoning endowment, racial imbalances among faculty and students and an undergraduate core education ridiculed by William Bennett as "Core life."
In a seeming fit of institutional amnesia for the 350th blow-out, Harvard banned the release of photographs of the 1969 student protests, and ignored its notorious anti-Semitism earlier this century under President Lowell. Only a few months before, students dismantled the last shanty towns in Harvard Yard as the divestment movement died.
And the party continued, into Derek Bok's 20th (and last) year as university president.
ATTEMPTING to do the right thing amid an information blitz, we are like the victims of frequent brainwashing that the philosopher Hannah Arendt describes in an essay on political deceit. Contrary to what some might expect, persons subjected to a stream of media manipulation, instead of believing what ever new they are told, grow less impressionable, more cynical, more inclined to disbelieve everything even as more versions of the truth are fed them.
In the face of this media barrage, students seem prone to abandon a healthy skepticism of events and indulge in nostalgia or extravagant self reflection. It seems a choice between television's "The Wonder years" and "thirtysomething." Talk to some under graduates and their eyes glaze over with longing at the mention of the 1960s student movements. Others engage in a never-ending, narcissistic evaluation of our own contemporary emotional well being, the value of our "life choices," or simply how much money we can make before we're 25.
Perhaps we've seen the limit of what sociologists used to call the great accomplishment of the modern personality: the ability to balance contradictory ideas. But now we don't even want to seek balance. Who can know what to believe when presidential candidates adjust their positions to the latest polls and executives script movies and books according to marketing studies?
Campus critics have discovered a keenly dismissive epithet characterized by just such a cynicism. That phrase, coined and widely circulated only since we entered college, is "politically correct"--or p.c--and it indicts a whole generation of thinkers trying to reform the status quo.
But the p.c. critique mainly reveals the complacency of its critics. No longer would those who fight for change--for accountable and compassionate government, for healing the inner cities, or for an end to race and gender discrimination--be granted any moral high ground. Instead, the new conservatives can dismiss them all as followers, yea-sayers, cunning players to the political crowd.
That simplistic dismissal of complicated problems is what the Bush Administration encourages us to keep doing with its "Read my lips" domestic agenda and "Just Cause' foreign policy. That oversimplification and abdication of thought is what television satirist Dana Carvey captured when he parodied how President Bush sought to seek credit for the revolution in eastern Europe last winter.
"Before Bush--Wall," the comedian deadpanned, imitating the President's clipped speech, "After Bush--no Wall."
SO WHAT is the alternative? Should we strive for a new Great Society, or just give up?
Sooner or later, we have to start by leaving the party of self-congratulation behind, and to stop taking seriously the co-opted, grinning 60s smiley-face that proclaims, "Don't Worry, Be Happy." When we do that, we can confront the real America in the face. Did you know that the number of Americans living below the poverty level (earning less than $6000 a year) rose more than 20 percent in the decade leading to 1988, to 32 million?
That between 31 million and 37 million Americans have no health insurance? That the crisis for minorities in our forgotten inner cities is reaching the boiling point, even beyond drugs, gangs, crime and disease? That 35 percent of Black children and 45 percent of Latino children never graduate from high school?
The paradox is that the 1990s pose a challenge our predecessors would have eagerly embraced. We graduate into a world that sees no war on the horizon, is buoyed by a long economic expansion and is equipped with the resources to bring about basic social and political change. We are the beneficiaries of a victory in an ideological war we did not have to physically fight, confronting a time of profound--but peaceful--competition internationally and in our own troubled society.
It's okay to worry a little.
Spencer S. Hsu '90, an English and American Literature concentrator, was executive editor of The Crimson in 1989.
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