The Problem With “Get Off My Lawn”

Okay–I’m going to indulge in yet another rant. (Then I’ll return this blog to its usual political preoccupations–promise!)

You will have to forgive me for these expressions of bile: as the midterms approach, and my patience and sanity continue to erode, I tend to get annoyed by things I would probably overlook if I was in a less fragile state of mind. But one commenter to this site–who often has very thoughtful and pertinent things to say–has a habit that has sent me over the edge.

That habit? Repeatedly denigrating the younger generation. Characterizing and dismissing all young people as cut from the same “me me” cloth.

You know who you are…

This wholesale dismissal of the younger generation–the tendency of us older folks to shout “get off my lawn!”– has been going on since the time of Socrates. (If you don’t believe me, here’s a compilation of insults directed at young people over the centuries.)

These sweeping denunciations were wrong when they were issued, and they’re wrong now.

First of all, there is really no difference between insisting that all Blacks or all Jews or all White Evangelicals are the same and [fill in your preferred negative label] and insisting that all members of a particular age cohort exhibit [fill in your preferred behavioral insult].  Bigotry isn’t limited to defamation based upon race, religion or sexual orientation.

Secondly, and more substantively, it’s inaccurate–and I don’t say that just because it is demonstrably inapplicable to my own children and grandchildren.

I taught classes filled with young people for 21 years–my students (I usually had a total of anywhere from 60-120 in a given semester) ranged in ages from 18 to 35, depending on whether they were undergraduates or graduate students. My classrooms were diverse, and my students were pretty representative of their generation–I taught at an urban campus that drew students predominantly from central Indiana. I had some students who came from more privileged backgrounds, but the majority did not. A significant number were the first in their families to attend college.

And while there was some “self-selection” due to our programs preparing students for public and non-profit careers, our largest academic  program was public safety–and it attracted mainly would-be police officers. So I feel confident that I saw a pretty good cross-section of young Americans.

I would turn this country over to them in a heartbeat.

Overall, my students were inclusive, caring and community-oriented. I saw very little evidence of bigotry or “me-ism” and considerable evidence of a firm–even passionate– commitment to social justice and legal equality. The papers they wrote for my classes were, overall, thoughtful, and reflected genuine concern for their communities and for the underprivileged people in those communities.

Granted, when students entered my classrooms they rarely came armed with knowledge of the Constitution, Bill of Rights or other aspects of America’s legal structure, but their attitudes had been shaped by what I like to call “The American Idea”–a belief in both individual liberty and civic equality.

And they acted on those commitments.They volunteered and organized. When it comes to political participation, the data confirms that youth turnout has been on the rise; in 2020, it hit 50%, an 11 point increase from 2016.

 Recent surveys tell us that 59% of them plan to vote this year.

There is a lot wrong with America right now, and a lot of structural problems that make solving those thorny problems difficult. It’s tempting to look for scapegoats–but it is neither accurate nor helpful to blame an entire generation for the unpleasant or unhelpful behaviors of some of them.

Sorry to pick on a reader I really like, butI feel better now…..