There are some things I know — for instance, the pluperfect of many irregular French verbs, most provincial and state capitals, the value of pi to 40 decimal places. I think I could even say something intelligible about the flight of the curiales in Late Antiquity. I have a decent enough education, and were I to write it all out, it would come darn close to filling 10 pages of foolscap, as Stephen Leacock says one should.
On the other hand, there are many things I’m sort of iffy about — such as anything to do with organic chemistry, the names — in order — of all the geological eras, and whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing when something pans out. I often have to look such things up or simply take a guess. I think the Neoproterozoic comes before the Mesoproterozoic; I could very well be a few million years off.
But there is one thing I’m absolutely positive I know very little about, which is, what the current generation of 20-year-olds, especially those who choose to go to university, have to do for their very own good. Obviously, many think they do know quite a lot about this, and are willing to offer all kinds of advice. Read the opinion section of any major newspaper, and you will see Sturm und Drang pieces on the declining value of any and all bachelor’s degrees; the need to choose a field that will guarantee a seamless entry into the workforce; the sad prospects of those who — how dare they in these tough economic times? — graduate with a BA.
Thankfully, very little of this anguish seems to have filtered down to the students themselves. Perhaps they’ve heard the cries of their worried sick seniors but simply can’t be bothered to care. As I teach and as I walk through the hallways of my faculty at the beginning of a new academic year, I see hope, enthusiasm, mirth even — students having a grand old time, filling — irresponsibly and much to the chagrin of some, no doubt — courses in Classics, English, Women’s and Gender Studies, Theatre and Film, etc.
I am certainly not a sociologist nor an economist; however, one cannot but wonder. Are we concerned about the future of our kids, or are we projecting onto them the torment we feel over our own? If this generation is truly supposed to be the first to earn less than its parent one — us — who will pay our bills as we get older?
Whatever the case may be, here’s the jist of the matter. In the history of one generation telling the next generation what to do, it’s never gone well at all. Let’s let them be. I’m guessing things will pan out.
Glenn Moulaison is dean of arts at the University of Winnipeg.