March 14, 2008
Dwelling in Possibilities
By Mark Edmundson
Our students' spectacular hunger for life makes them radically vulnerable.
At the beginning of school last fall, I ran into a student on the University of Virginia Lawn, not far from the famous statue of Homer instructing an admiring pupil. Homer's student is in a toga. Mine was wearing wraparound sunglasses like Bono's, black jeans, and a red T-shirt emblazoned with Chinese characters in white. Over his shoulder he carried his laptop.
We asked each other the usual question: What did you do over the summer? What he did, as I recall, was a brief internship at a well-regarded Internet publication, a six-country swing ...view middle of the document...
They want to study, travel, make friends, make more friends, read everything (superfast), take in all the movies, listen to every hot band, keep up with everyone they've ever known. And there's something else, too, that distinguishes them: They live to multiply possibilities. They're enemies of closure. For as much as they want to do and actually manage to do, they always strive to keep their options open, never to shut possibilities down before they have to.
This hunger for life has a number of consequences, for now and for the future. It's part of what makes this student generation appealing, highly promising — and also radically vulnerable. These students may go on to do great and good things, but they also present dangers to themselves and to the common future. They seem almost to have been created, as the poet says, "half to rise and half to fall." As a teacher of theirs (and fellow citizen), I'm more than a little concerned about which it's going to be.
Internet technology was on hand for my current students from about the time they were eight years old; it was in 1995 that the Netscape browser made the Internet accessible to everyone. And the Internet seems to me to have shaped their generation as much as the multichannel TV, with that critical device, the remote control, shaped the students who registered for my classes a decade ago. What is the Internet to current students?
Consider first what it is not. A friend of mine, who has assiduously kept a journal for 40 years, calls the journal, which now runs to about 40 volumes, a "life thickener." His quotations and pictures and clips and drawings and paintings give density and meaning to the blind onrush that life can be. He looks back through the volumes and sees that there was a life and that to him it meant something. To my students, I suspect, my friend would look like a medieval monk, laboring over his manuscripts, someone with a radically pre-postmodern feel for time, someone who did not, in fact, understand what time actually is.
An Internet-linked laptop, one may safely say, is not a life thickener. At the fingertips of my students, the laptop is a multiplier of the possible. "I dwell in possibility," says Emily Dickinson, "a fairer house than prose." Well, my students want to dwell there with her and, it seems, to leave me in the weed-grown bungalow, prose.
My university recently passed an edict: No one, damn it (insofar as edicts can say damn it), is going to triple major. Everyone now who is worth his tuition money double majors: The students in my classes are engineering/English; politics/English; chemistry/English. An urban legend in my leaf-fringed 'hood is that someone got around this inane dictum about triple majors by majoring in four subjects — there was, it seems, no rule against that. The top students at my university, the ones who set the standard for the rest, even if they drive the rest a little crazy, want to take eight classes a term, major...