Ten years ago, NBC newscaster Tom Brokaw wrote a book about what he called “The Greatest Generation.” In contrast, there’s a new best seller out now calling America “the dumbest generation.” And since Louisiana is at the bottom of the barrel on most national lists, you can imagine how folks in the Bayou State are viewed. But with all the tools of modern technology of our digital culture supplying us with a 24/7 information overload, and the opportunities for intellectual development at an all time high, why aren’t we making a run at being “the greatest generation?” What conditions existed 70 years ago that set those who fought in World War II and those who volunteered at home apart?
These questions were the focus of discussion recently in New Orleans at the opening of some new spectacular attractions, all part of the National World War II Museum. Tom Brokaw was there for the grand opening and talked about his definition of the greatest generation. “They came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modern America – men and women whose everyday lives of duty, honor, achievement and courage gave us the world we have today.”
There’s no doubt that these men and women of the1940s were resourceful, hardworking and deeply committed to giving extraordinary service to their country. But do we instill these same values now? Or does today’s generation value lifestyle over success?
In his book, The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein has little hope for today’s youth. Bauerlien views our young people as “Ignorant of politics and government, art and music, prose and poetry. The dumbest generation is content to turn up their iPods and tune out the realities of the adult world. It is brash, pampered, dumb -- and content to stay that way.”
Bauerlein’s viewpoint of today’s youth as being callow and worse is being echoed by other commentators and columnists. Young people are incorrigible and it’s their way or the highway. They aren’t that well educated, they don’t vote, and they show little respect for values honed by the hard work and sacrifice of previous generations. The rest of us are viewed as old, redundant, not to be trusted, and long past retirement age.
What has happened to the leadership that was charged with instilling these traditional values? Where is the call for sacrifice, volunteerism and “pitching in” for the greater good? The idea of sacrifice seems old-fashioned in our modern times. Self-sacrifice is so out-of-tune that we’ve turned upside down President Kennedy’s moral challenge: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Today, many Americans consider self-sacrifice to be something only for suckers and losers. Even our “public servants” often leave office much richer than when they took office, or at least having used their government service as merely a stepping stone to a much higher paying job in the private sector. For many, Kennedy’s words have been rewritten: “Ask not what you can do for yourselves or your country, but what your country can do for you.” Who can forget President Bush’s advice after 9/11 that the best way to support our country was to “relax and go shopping.”
In a state like Louisiana that has so far to go just to land in the median of so many national lists, one would think that a major volunteer effort would be both productive and necessary. Yet the state seems almost to go out if its way to build barriers for citizens who want to pitch in. A retired chemist from a Louisiana chemical plant who wants to volunteer to teach chemistry in public schools must spend a year getting a teaching certificate, at his or her own expense. I have taught history at both Tulane and LSU, and served for 8 years as Secretary of State, an office that oversees the state’s historical collections. Yet, I’m not qualified to teach eight-grade history in Louisiana public schools under Louisiana public school teacher requirements.
Louisiana State Treasurer John Kennedy recently suggested that every public official in the state spend a little time teaching in local classrooms –it’s a good idea that would inspire many young people. When he proposed it to a newly created Commission to Streamline Government in Louisiana, his suggestion was summarily dismissed as unworkable and not practical.
Public officials in Louisiana, from the governor on down, are missing a great opportunity by not calling for more volunteer public service. Teaching in classrooms, giving time to help in hospitals and daycare centers, volunteering at the local food bank, a homeless shelter, the Red Cross, animal shelters, teaching adult literacy. There are so many heart- warming opportunities to help, to give back.
With due respect and admiration to my friend Tom Brokaw, I don’t believe any one-generation can take credit for being “the greatest.” Things happen. History is recorded. History gets interpreted. Subsequent generations reinterpret it.
Louisiana and the nation are looking for leaders who will lead in calling for a major volunteer effort from citizens of all ages. Government cannot do it alone. There are many who want to contribute and volunteer. They just need to be told how, where, and when. And that’s where real leadership comes in. Inspiring and instilling a sense of commitment to public service.
At the dedication ceremonies for the new attractions in New Orleans, Corporal Carl Grassman, a highly decorated veteran, was invited as a special guest. He lives with his wife in Detroit and he works as a Wal-Mart greeter. When told he would be honored at the museum and his travel expenses would be paid, he declined saying his fellow employees needed him too much and that he would feel terrible if he left them for this one day to be so commemorated. When the Wal-Mart brass heard this story, they flew Carl and his wife to New Orleans in the Wal-Mart private jet.
There are millions like Corporal Grossman who do their jobs each day and want to do even more to help their communities, their states and their country. They’re just waiting for leaders to give them direction and set out a game plan so that they too can lay claim to being one of the “greatest generations.”