Young, Old, Forever

"Kids these days" is a time-honored cliché.  The cliché is getting new traction with the oncoming student loan crisis and the popular sentiment, among established adults, that indebted college graduates brought the problem on themselves (and on the whole nation) by studying useless things like English and art history instead of learning how to develop software programs or magically becoming entrepreneurs at the age of twenty-five.

With Christmas upon us, I want to change gears and defend today's young people.  As someone with degrees in classics and English, who teaches Greco-Roman mythology and American literature, I'm also defending myself, hopefully without being defensive.

As long as humans have written, they have compared new generations unfavorably with older ones.  The Greek writer Hesiod's Works and Days includes a description of the five ages of man.  The long-passed golden age was the best; the iron age, Hesiod's own, the worst.  Hesiod enshrined the golden age as a bygone utopia, while placing the horror-stricken iron age at the end of a hopeless slide from goodness to malevolence.  (Works and Days was written roughly seven hundred years before Virgil's Aeneid.)

Jonathan Swift pitted the "Antients" against the "Moderns" in his turn-of-the-eighteenth-century classic Battle of the Books.  Swift imagined old books fighting new ones in the king's library.  Modern Dryden loses because ancient Virgil's armor is too heavy for the modern generation's weak frame.  For Swift, Virgil was the acme of brilliance, even though Virgil was almost a millennium into Hesiod's supposed age of iron.

Last week I sat in the lounge at the YMCA, waiting for my daughter to finish her swimming lesson.  A Vietnam War veteran admonished me for being part of the weak, softened "New Army."  The harangue lasted only until a ninety-year-old World War II veteran hobbled into the conversation and scolded the Vietnam War veteran for being inferior to the "Greatest Generation" that defeated the Nazis.

When semesters end, I indulge in my share of youth-bashing, simply because the excuses, whining, and mind-crushingly bad work turned in by procrastinators is enough to make anybody feel that the twenty-year-olds of today are going to be disastrous civic leaders tomorrow.

There are the students who post four-page essays to the university portal when the minimum page requirement was six.  Others submit papers on Huckleberry Finn, which we didn't read this semester, because they didn't attend most of the classes and didn't even realize that Twain's novel was published after 1865, where the course ends.  Still others post papers in unreadable code and then claim that their computer destroyed what would have been, otherwise, a five-star masterpiece on the role of lust in Ovid's telling of Pyramus and Thisbe.  A half-dozen students decided to do "ideological" readings of Echo and Narcissus, instead of "etiological" analysis, though I wrote "etiological" on the board in enormous letters so all 65 students could see it.  Then there is the student who didn't have Leaves of Grass for the three weeks we went over it in class, thus sending in a paper about Poe's "Black Cat" in response to a prompt about Whitman.

I've made cartoons like this one mocking the embarrassing tricks young people pull.  It is too easy to forget that my students assembled gorgeous research galleries in honor of Shirley Jones and The Music Man, veterans and Lawrence of Arabia, intelligence operatives and Dr. No, and great Latin American writers. When given a chance to take pride in themselves, they go far beyond the call of duty.

Juvenalia remind conservatives that their essential cause -- to hold onto cherished and time-honored mores -- faces a disadvantage against experimentation and whimsy.  The teacher keeps getting older, and the students are always the same age, which produces a distortion effect.  It seems that the young are getting sloppier and more ignorant, when really this impression comes from the fact that the teacher is more seasoned and suspicious.

I must remind myself that I was no different.  When I arrived at college at the age of seventeen, I abused my freedom and played hooky.  Flirtation with radical ideas made me feel chic.  New friends lured me into long conversations that went late into the night, with the result that I overslept, missed exams, and got bad grades.

My classmates from Williamsville South High School and Yale University, people I remember from 25 and 30 years ago, enjoy stellar reputations.  They were once reckless airheads, like me, who stole cars, went for joyrides, urinated on statues in Harvard Yard, made prank calls, and toilet-papered houses over petty vendettas.  We forget all of this when we look at college students today and say they have become incorrigible.

"We had to work hard!"  We like to say that to young people who whine about lousy jobs.  There's truth and untruth in such reproaches.  Many of them have been working since they were fifteen, just as I did.  My first job was at a pizzeria called Santora's in Williamsville, New York; I made such bad submarines that I was allowed to deal only with chicken wings.  That was when I earned $3.35 an hour and relished every penny in the paycheck, though I despised every minute of the work.  When I worked at a jewelry importer on 28th and Broadway in Manhattan, at the age of twenty, I would show up sleepless and hung over, leading the manager to call me out.  But I had no place to live and drifted as an annoying guest from friend's couch to friend's couch.  I was hung over because being homeless and sober was worse than being homeless and drunk.  At the age of twenty-three, I was a paralegal at a midtown law firm, where we played football in the halls of the litigation annex after hours.  I kept watch while co-workers had sex in document storage rooms.  In the army, I was so bad at throwing grenades that a sergeant bet on me getting an entire platoon killed if I ever got sent down range.

We can judge and condemn, preach and scold, but at Christmas time, it is worth remembering the main reason why Jesus came to minister.  The reason was renewal, redemption, resurrection -- things available, according to Christian philosophy, to virtually anyone willing to change.  The old adage is true; the best we can do with mistakes is learn from them and not get stuck in them.

This is a roundabout way of saying that when you read about an NYU graduate who majored in philosophy and now can't find a job to pay off $215,000 in student loans, go easy on him.  Let's all figure out how to bring down tuition bills and end fiscal irresponsibility on the part of university administrators and the federal government.

Philosophy will lead that 25-year-old quoted in Salon to wherever he needs to be, sooner or later.  When I was 25 years old, I had gotten a BA from Yale with an A- GPA, at long last, and I still had to do housekeeping in a gay sex club, work the towel desk at the New York Sports Club, and temp as a paralegal to cobble enough money together to cover rent in the Bronx.  People have survived this stuff since the days when Socrates schooled young idealists in the dust of the Athenian agora.

There is a "fiscal cliff" that has prompted excuses from Democrats far lamer than any of the "dog ate my homework" variety.  Why are we at a fiscal cliff, again?  Oh yes, that's right -- because middle-aged leaders from both parties procrastinated and came up with excuses a year and a half ago.  Which is more disappointing: that a college sophomore would choose to major in English, or that a 60-year-old head of the CIA would store love letters with his mistress in a gmail draft box?

"Kids these days" are...well, kids. Merry Christmas.

Robert Oscar Lopez is the author of three books coming out in 2013, published by the owner of Runaway Pen.