As the Business Ethics class I teach at Yale concluded this semester, I asked my students to watch the 2012 Wellesley High School graduation speech delivered by David McCullough, Jr. titled “You’re Not Special” (click HERE). I did so to remind them that purpose and impact should be more important than mantel-filling accomplishments. I wanted them to help homeless veterans not to buff up their Rhodes or Fulbright applications but instead to help homeless veterans.
My last class featured legendary Yale administrator Sam Chauncey (click HERE) discussing the lack of outrage among today’s youth. It’s worth noting his experience includes helping steer the university through the turbulent 1960s; Sam was also instrumental in bringing coeducation to Yale. Today’s students, noted Sam, seem “comfortable” and lack the passion for causes that typified earlier eras. Students don’t appear to be willing to risk personal harm. I turned to the class…surely some students were willing to take on personal risk to further causes, weren’t they?
Rather than push back upon Sam’s suggestion, the class instead sought to explain it. Here are two statements that caught my attention:
“There’s no military draft in the United States today so while we are upset about Iraq…it’s not as personal and doesn’t touch us…”
“Sure I care about fossil fuel usage and trying to save the environment, but I don’t feel empowered to change others’ actions.”
A friend of mine sat in the back of the classroom and passively listened. After about 45 minutes of debate, I asked him to share his story…
Wael (click HERE) began with a bit of background; he was Egyptian, had attended school in Cairo, and had worked in Dubai for Google. He took a leave of absence from work to return home. While in Egypt, he used social media to organize protests against torture, corruption, unemployment and injustice. He was captured by Egyptian police and held in prison for 11 days, eventually let go, he stated, because of “rising pressure from Amnesty International and Google and the US government.” Upon his release, he returned to Tahrir Square and increased his efforts. “I was prepared to die for the cause.” Shortly thereafter, the Egyptian regime that had been in power for decades fell.
My students were stunned. Here was an ordinary looking person sitting among them, a mere “friend of Vikram’s visiting New Haven,” who had literally changed the world. In 2011, Time Magazine placed him at the top of their annual list of the 100 Most Influential People. At the time, he was 30 years old. Many students felt empowered, energized, and even motivated to care deeply and to change the status quo. Despite the excitement, I sensed reluctance.
My students were not looking deeply enough to be outraged. They lacked causes of personal meaning. I had also asked my students to watch another video—the 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech given by the late David Foster Wallace titled “This is Water” (click HERE).
In the speech, Wallace states “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see” and uses seemingly mundane examples such as shopping for groceries and driving in traffic to illustrate the power of perspective. He powerfully articulates the need to acknowledge the “hard-wired default settings” that serve as the basis for most of our thinking and encourages empathy and breadth of possibility.
Later that day I had a chance to meet my students over dinner and I asked them to connect Wael’s story to the Wallace message. The speech, they admitted, had raised numerous topics of potential passionate outrage.
Why wasn’t there more outrage about economic inequality? One student noted the “ludicrous” compensation that today’s CEOs earn. But most in the room weren’t bothered by CEOs earning small fortunes every year – in fact, some likely aspired to be those well-compensated CEOs. Numerous other topics were raised, including climate change, racial injustice, and gender inequity.
But when I asked if anyone would risk their life, career, or family for a cause they believed in, only two hands went up… a Colombian student and a Chinese student, both of who had personally felt the impact of injustice.
So was Sam right? Have today’s students actually become too comfortable to be the revolutionary force they can, should, and need to be? Does one need to personally be a victim of injustice to passionately fight against it? Who will make the world a better place if not today’s youth?