A line from a Bob Dylan song keeps going through my head: “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
That describes well my year as a high school sophomore, a member of that cohort, which, with a perfectly balanced mix of arrogance and ignorance, knows absolutely everything worth knowing and is eager to share it if only the world will admit its failures and seek our wise counsel.
At that age, in that time of our lives, we believe every discovery we make is being discovered for the first time, every idea we have is being thought of for the first time, every burst of pure emotional righteousness is being felt for the first time in the history of the universe. Only we can see clearly the urgent problems of the world, and we demand they be fixed, right now, with no excuses.
If only the world had heeded our calls. We could have not only quickly ended the Vietnam War, but put an end to all wars, and conquered hunger, poverty and all other forms of human misery in the bargain. And there would be love instead of the worship of material wealth, and our prisons would empty, and hate, prejudice, envy and selfishness would all be tossed into the dustbin of history.
All that was required was for people to do the right thing, and, when they failed to do it, the government, run by a benevolent philosopher king, would step in and make them do the right thing. So simple.
One cannot stay a high school sophomore forever, so, alas, we grew up, and spent the rest of our lives unlearning everything we had been certain to the core of our being was unchallengeable truth. And the world kept stumbling along, one step forward, two steps back, somehow steadily improving.
But we will never run out of high school sophomores. There always will be an incoming crop to replace the outgoing one, each more eager than the last to make the world pay attention.
I see them in the media all the time, leading the charge on everything from gun control to white privilege and the misdeeds of the heteronormative, patriarchal elite. Young people today, says a writer in Forbes magazine, are ready to “own their title as ‘the future’ — all while taking a killer selfie.”
They are especially in the forefront of the climate-change crisis, marching in the streets to demand that we immediately fix the global warming that will, at some vague point in the future, slowly kill the planet somehow unless we give up our whole way of life and submit to total government control of everything.
Masses of them — 4 million of them, by one estimate — went “on strike” from school recently, angrily demanding in cities and towns all across the world that complacent world leaders wake up and heal the planet. One of the Indiana co-organizers, yes, a high school sophomore from Carmel, says the students will keep coming back “until our message gets across.”
It’s tempting to dismiss such enthusiasm as merely part of the natural rhythm of life, like the return of autumn or the calls for more transparency from aspiring officeholders.
People are always quoting Aristotle or Plato or some other dead Greek to the effect that “young people today are so disrespectful” to prove that the modern dismissive attitude toward youth is misguided. But it also proves that young people have always thought they know more than their elders, and always will, until they grow up and discover reality. It’s an endless cycle.
But perhaps the cycle can be broken.
I came across a January Atlantic interview with South Bend mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, conducted in a New York restaurant over a lunch of tempura fried chicken. The candidate “announced with intrigued wonderment” that the sauce had “a beginning, a middle and an end,” the first time ever anyone had discovered the culinary delights of wasabi honey.
He says he thinks a lot about “intergenerational justice,” by which he seems to mean that, as a young person, he would engage in “long-range solutions” as opposed to the old fogies now in charge who only worry about short-term thinking because they’ll be dead before their mistakes become obvious anyway.
He “means no disrespect,” of course, but there have been too many years of “kicking the can down the road,” and the consequences are now coming due, and people his age just aren’t going to settle for “We’ve always done it this way,” certainly the first generation to make such a brilliant observation in the history of the universe ever.
If we accept that “high school sophomore” is not just an age group but a state of mind, it’s clear what is going on. It is quite possible that the next president of the United States, the leader of the free world and the hope of all humankind, could be a high school sophomore.
And that would mean a coming generation of high school sophomores might realize the dreams of all their predecessors — actually being in charge of the world. Dare we think of what that might mean?
I can’t believe I’m the only person in the whole world who sees this. Perhaps I’m even more even perceptive and insightful than I realized.
Or perhaps I’m regressing.