I sat in the Golden Tiger in Prague drinking a Pilsner when I figured out the problem with my students’ view of their future. First, a quick story:
I spent a great deal of time in both St. Petersburg, Russia, and Prague, the Czech Republic. I met some people in both cities whom became dear friends: artists and writers and business people. A colleague and I received a few grants to discuss American culture to Russian faculty who would be teaching American authors. This was the early nineties when communism had only recently “ended,” and Boris Yeltsin was president.
We discussed Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and Douglass’ Narrative of Frederick Douglass, among others. One example of the problems we faced is trying to help faculty teach “Death of a Salesman” and needing to explain commission sales, insurance premiums, and the American Dream. The faculty and citizens we met throughout the city all wanted to know everything about the United States, about democracy, about capitalism and the entertainment industry. They wanted to be us. But no one really understood how to do it. We told them to have patience; it took the United States a few centuries to get it right and we were still stumbling. But their primary problem was something different: no one in Russia had ever lived under any form of government that was not oppressive. And their history showed no difference; the Czarist system had its unique form of oppression but not any better than the Soviet system. Democratic principles were never, ever part of the country’s vocabulary.
Prague was slightly different.
When I taught a seminar at Charles University I was lucky enough to work with and become friends with best-selling Czech author Arnost Lustig. He grew up in Prague, survived the Terezine Ghetto, survived Auschwitz and the Nazis, and spent half of his time in Prague and, after the Soviet crackdown in 1968, the other half in Washington, DC.
We sat one afternoon at the Golden Tiger and talked about the differences between Russia and Prague. It was an enlightening discussion. He pointed out that Prague was quite democratic for many years, and remained so even after the Soviets took over after World War Two, and by the late 1960’s, Rock and Roll, left-wing politics, and the hippie culture took the area known as Bohemia to heart and culminated in what was known as the Prague Spring—the first “Spring” of its kind. Then the Soviets sent in tanks and crushed the movements for another twenty years before the Velvet Revolution. But he said the reason Communism never worked well in Prague is because of “institutional memory” of so many of the citizens. “The Russians never knew freedom so well, so in the ‘90’s they really didn’t know how to handle it, but we knew freedom, we knew how to live with Democratic principles, so we really never took well to Communism to begin with. Like oppression of the Russian people is inevitable again because it is what the people are comfortable with and understand, Democracy in the Czech Republic was equally inevitable.”
When there are people to remember what it was like before, there are people to help us understand what is wrong with how it is now.
My freshmen students were, for the most part, two-years-old on September 11th, 2001. Even my older students were not nearly old enough to be out of grade school. All these people have ever known is a country looking over its shoulder, a Department of Homeland Security, the threat of terrorism in an era of wars, a life of sharing information online, of surveillance, of alternative facts. They’ve only ever known the need “to be protected,” “to report suspicious behavior,” to be weary of the monster on the other side of the Island.
They missed the whole America where we had the absolute conviction our future was our own, where the inalienable rights were not based upon criteria, and where respect of our government and the democratic principles proven for two centuries was universal, even if some of those countries didn’t like us very much.
My students for the most part came after the whole “hope” thing. They didn’t have any “moonshot” ambitions. They never had a chance to demand walls be taken down and gates be unlocked. This, right now, is their reality. It is one of apprehension and suspicion.
We can teach them the history and the social sciences behind the pre-911 way-of-life in the United States, and the world for that matter. But it is unlikely they will comprehend something we show no signs of ever heading towards again. So what are we left with to balance the increasingly questionable future these students have apparently decided to try and improve simply by their act of being in college to begin with?
I turn again as I have before on these pages to one of the most important letters written in the 20th century. It was composed by a contemporary of my late friend Arnost, as they both managed to survive a Nazi death camp, and the letter was published by Haim Ginott:
“I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and killed by high school and college graduates. So I’m suspicious of education. My request is: help your students to be human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, or educated Eichmanns. Reading and Writing and spelling and history and arithmetic are only important if they serve to make our students more human.”