ART, REVOLUTION, AND A REUNION OF HOPE
This morning, a week and a half before the beginning of the Fall semester at Southwestern University, I had a virtual reunion with a group of students whom I had first met a little over a year ago, in my First Year Seminar on Art and Revolution in the Fall of 2019. That course, whose students came from all sorts of majors, was a joy, and a transformative one for many of us. We bonded deeply. Most of us found that our thinking on the course’s subject, on its relationship to us, and on who we were as individuals and a group, evolved wonderfully over the course of the semester. We also genuinely liked and admired one another. Our final class meeting was, for some of us, tearful – and in that meeting I, middle-aged and not-so-vaguely sentimental prof. that I am, told them a truth that I felt they needed to know and to hear: that they, and their generation as a whole, offers up vistas of hope that are in short supply in the U.S. today.
In the final weeks of that semester in the Fall of 2019 one of the students suggested that our cohort have a reunion in the Fall of 2020. Others readily agreed, and I said that I would set something up. None of us at that point had even the faintest idea of the looming cataclysm of COVID-19, the coming shutdown and the crises of conscience, faith, and leadership that would attend that cataclysm, or the intensity and immensity of the societal convulsions triggered by the continuing plagues of police brutality and racist authoritarianism – much less the extraordinary courage shown by those who, despite their masks, have braved the chances of COVID-19 infection in order to resist that deadly tide.
So our reunion was much different than we would have expected last year when we planned it. One student has transferred to another university but joined us, another called while stuck in traffic on I-35, the others called from various domiciles, enabling me to peek into their own (or their parents’) tastes in wall art, furniture, books in the bookcases. But we met virtually, and it was a meeting of joy.
As so many times before, before our reunion I told the students that this was their class, not mine, but I had set up an agenda of sorts for our reunion just to provide some sort of general orientation. Two highlights:
(1) (An item that was not on the agenda) I asked them to fast forward to some point in the distant future when a person who, at that time, is the same age that they are now (nineteen), asks them what it was like to be alive during all that happened in 2020: what will they say, how will they answer?
Their answers ranged from stoical (“it was like the world just pushed the pause button”) to outrageous (“Oh, I’m gonna exaggerate like crazy” from one student; “I’m going to tell them about the corpse carts and calls of ‘bring out your dead!’” from another). Most, though, said that they had discovered or decided that this period of quarantine, of forced isolation, of fear, was a time to learn more about themselves, to look deeper and discover things that were within themselves that they didn’t know were there – and then to express these things. Some applied it to their physical routines (one has taken to running more regularly and greater distances, another has changed from running to working out); some applied it to creative work in connection with the environment and home (gardening and cooking). Most said that they hadn’t yet thought about how they’d look back on this year from that far down the road. But when the questions were posed they answered them thoughtfully, with a mix of humor and philosophy. I hope that future generations will ask that question, and will listen and learn from what today’s young people say.
(2) I also asked them to talk about the seminar’s theme of Art and Revolution as they see it now. We all agreed that we had come into our course with one set of ideas (some of which focused on defining what each of those terms meant to each of us, authentically); we agreed that our thinking had changed significantly over the course of the semester; and we agreed that the bewildering events of 2020 have forced us to think further about those terms – both as individual concepts and in their relationship to each other –, to interrogate our assumptions and our conclusions alike, and to think about how to apply them. And two students said that this period – the pandemic, the economic shutdown, quarantine, the protests – has made it more important than ever for artists to “do their thing,” to create more vigorously and with greater imagination and commitment than ever before. Others said that the forces of societal upheaval – forces that are being bravely driven by their own generation – are in themselves art (i.e., that resistance and revolution are an art-form in its own right); others said that changing lives, which of course is the goal of both education and the tides of resistance that we’re seeing, is the most important art form of all. And we talked about the tidal wave of joy (I get the credit for that phrase!) that will go up among those of us who are living through this when our teams get to play together again, our ensembles rehearse and perform, our actors interact with each other on stage and with their audiences, our classes engage in discussions and debates. Those of us who are living through the year 2020 will never, ever take those communal joys for granted again: in this sense, the year 2020 has occasioned lasting beauty in our lives.
The point: far from using the quarantine as an excuse for laziness physical and intellectual, as some have suggested, these students have used it for what is arguably the most constructive sort of learning experience anyone can ever have. For them, in their own lives, the virtual collapse of U.S. society has been an opportunity for deep thinking and rapid, long-lasting personal growth.
(Sidenote: another student who had persuaded her parents to let her get a nose piercing this summer explained how she had put together a PowerPoint to make her case – one that methodically addressed the idea, the pros and cons, and even included peer review and citations! She shared the PowerPoint with us, talked through it. It was a great presentation. I’m not surprised that she persuaded them.)
That’s occasion for hope: these students have within themselves a will to change lives, to make the world better, to learn, and to create that was not smothered by the COVID-19 shutdown, but rather nourished by it.
We also talked about other stuff, of course – as friends naturally do. We talked about masks (Isaac's gas mask that he got for $10 wins here), we talked about voting (of course they will, and yes, they're registered). But we agreed that we will do this again, every year at the beginning of the fall semester. This, too, is something to look forward to with hope as we all begin our individual journeys through uncertainties and challenges of the new academic year.
My take-away is that those of us who are fortunate enough to teach the current generation of undergraduates should resist the widespread societal tendency to speak dismissively or patronizingly of them, to point to their attractions to social media and technology as somehow immature. For anyone – especially a generation that has come as close to bringing the world to the brink of utter collapse and irreparable destruction as ours has -- to reduce these folks to that is to wrong them, gravely. Today’s nineteen-year-olds offer deep and extraordinary personal strength; wisdom; courage; and, perhaps most of all, hope.
Theirs is a generation of hope. Let’s celebrate that and hold them up for all the promise they offer to our world.