IT'S ALWAYS risky to generalize about a generation, but that stops few of us from doing it. As a thirtysomething professor of history at Goucher College, I've found myself on both ends of the process.
Students, tagging me as a baby boomer, want to know how my generation rationalizes our transformation from hippies and radical activists to career-obsessed yuppies. On the other hand, I've complained frequently to my colleagues and spouse about the passivity and seeming indifference of my students.
Consequently, I've read with great interest a recent spate of articles about the "baby busters," the generation that followed on the heels of my more numerous and boisterous cohort.
Much of the analysis rings true. Confronted with students who appear at times unconcerned with the challenges and complexities of history, I wonder why some of them are in college. I shake my head in amazement contemplating the nearly $70,000 that their parents will lay out over four years for them to receive a Goucher education.
Yet I should know better than to be too judgmental. Look at the labels slapped on my generation when we were in college: drug-crazed, anarchistic, unpatriotic and anti-intellectual. These are some of the printable terms.
Just as these attempts to lump us together distorted reality, so, too, does the portrait of baby busters as apathetic and self-absorbed. There is more to this generation than first meets the eye. However discouraged I get about motivating students in the classroom, their growing activism outside the classroom impresses me.
Last spring, for example, Goucher students organized a "Week of Caring" in which they raised nearly $5,000 to purchase playground equipment for the Children's Guild, an organization that runs a school for emotionally disturbed children in Baltimore. The success of this drive acted as a catalyst for similar activities, and a new spirit of voluntarism and community awareness now pervades the campus. Goucher students have established a wide array of service projects, including participation in a soup kitchen downtown, recycling on campus, providing assistance to the House of Ruth, and an intensive effort to work with Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity. Students and faculty at the college also take part in a mentoring program at Harlem Park Middle School.
In conversations with students, I detect a quiet determination to make a difference. A college senior who helped prod the campus into the recent surge of community involvement disputes the charge that her generation cares little about changing the world. Readily conceding that it is less confrontational than its predecessor, she refuses to apologize for the low-key approach. It's a different sort of activism, she argues -- not as dramatic, but maybe more enduring.
Despite their differences, baby boomers and baby busters share an important characteristic: extended adolescence. As the life expectancy of Americans increases, it takes longer to grow up. Achieving a sense of autonomy, gaining the ability to set goals and postpone gratification and developing a tolerance of ambiguity and diversity overwhelmed us when we were 18, and most members of my generation stretched out the process of becoming adults into our late 20s and beyond. We shouldn't be caught off guard by the difficulties today's students encounter as they "grow up."
Higher education in the United States, however, has done little to adjust to this historical trend. The curriculum retains much of its old look. Attempts to promote self-discipline and to provide opportunities for working cooperatively with others, to sharpen critical skills for succeeding in the world outside college, are few and far between.
In this context, the enthusiastic involvement in community service of students at Goucher and other area colleges suggests at least two possibilities for revamping higher education. First, colleges and universities should seek ways to incorporate volunteer work into the formal curriculum as a way to build bridges for students between college and society, and to inject fresh perspectives into their course work. Goucher has taken a step in this direction, awarding students academic credit for approved off-campus experiences.
Second, the federal government should consider funding and coordinating a voluntary national program for high school graduates interested in public service. Such a program, involving domestic work or overseas projects like the Peace Corps, would allow adolescents not ready for college to contribute to society and gain an invaluable opportunity to grow and learn in a non-academic environment. Not only would these young women and men be better prepared to get the most out of their college education; if the government granted tuition credits for national service, students could make up at least some of the gap created by the slashing of the federal student loan budget.
In any event, perhaps baby busters committed to bringing about long-lasting change have something to teach the rest of us about striking a balance in our lives between personal advancement and a stronger sense of community. As a Goucher student observes, given the enormous problems facing us, we have little choice but to work together for a change.
Peter W. Bardaglio is assistant professor of history at Goucher D College.