Another semester has come to an end at Georgetown University, where I’ve been teaching anthropology for the last ten years. This semester, I had over 150 students in three different classes: two sections of Introduction to Anthropology and an Urban Anthropology course. The Introductory class this semester focused on anthropology and mental health, and encouraged students to see the links between our readings and their own life experiences. As a result of teaching this course, I learned that my students are very anxious and pessimistic about their futures. Even at an elite university, where many students come from wealthy families and can look forward to obtaining good jobs after graduation, fear and despair are palpable. Given the political toxicity unleashed by Donald Trump and growing concerns about global warming, this is not surprising. Today’s college students are aware that they will not earn as much as their parents did, many are saddled with immense college debt by the time they graduate, and they know that the ecological frameworks of life on earth are under serious threat. As a professor, I wonder if I should be teaching them more about how to survive in the bleak world they are inheriting, or if I should just stick to the syllabi I’ve used for over a decade.
I’ve taught college courses in the United States, Canada, Lebanon, and Spain for a period spanning over 30 years. Although I was not much older than my students when I first began teaching, I still try to stay up to date with their concerns, pop culture references, and goals, and I’ve noticed that college students are increasingly preoccupied with making a good salary and getting top grades, rather than exploring ideas and debating contending viewpoints. Fears of the future outweigh engagement with new concepts or taking courses in the arts and humanities that won’t increase their earning potential. The joy of learning is gone. College is just the next hoop to jump through on their way to a six-figure salary.
I’m now the same age as my students’ parents, and I can see that my generation has really let down the rising generation in so many ways. The ideals that mobilized youth movements in the United States and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s bore little fruit. The same can be said for the Arab Spring movements of 2011. Power is increasingly concentrated in a few hands, and exercised poorly. Neoliberal capitalism has eaten away at social solidarity and hope like a cancer, and a sense of fun and experimentation are notably lacking among young people starting out their adult lives in America today.
As philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich long ago noted, human beings live in intentionality, oriented towards the future and spurred on by possibilities. Between the zero-sum socioeconomic logic of neoliberal capitalism and the growing evidence of global warming’s destructiveness, there’s scant room for intentionality. Of course, my privileged and upper middle class students’ lives are a paradise compared to the hell confronting people living in Syria, Gaza, and Yemen, yet even they can sense that something is seriously wrong and out of balance, and that the current modus operandi on planet Earth is unsustainable. My students express resignation more so than cynicism about the world they’re inheriting, and I feel powerless to provide answers and guidelines that could help them maneuver through the inevitable challenges they will soon face. What’s really needed is a complete and radical transformation of every system of contemporary life on the planet: ecological, economic, political, educational, and moral. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, humanity has only 12 years to contain the worst consequences of climate change. Yet those with the power to do so – governments and corporations—seem entirely unconcerned and unmotivated, particularly in the dark age of Donald Trump’s presidency.
So many of my best students – even those majoring in history, literature, sociology, and philosophy – are going off to work in the financial sector on Wall Street. The banks that decimated the US economy a decade ago are keen to have students from elite schools like Georgetown, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton join their firms, even if they did not major in business. The cachet of graduating from a top university is a sufficient qualification. A degree from an elite university is now just window dressing for the financial sector to exploit in appealing to elite clients. It’s depressing to see students with the skills and intelligence to change the world entering the maw of neoliberal rapaciousness. Making money and getting rich—no matter at whose expense—is the unquestioned end goal of college studies now. The gap between rich and poor in the United States is growing dramatically with every passing year. The middle class is disappearing and the consequent “dog eat dog” mentality is apparent in every dimension of life. Poor people are dismissed as losers, entirely responsible for not “making it” in the cruel economy that now encompasses the entire globe. Thus, they deserve whatever they get: poor housing, bad schools, lack of health care, and dead end jobs. Being greedy and self-interested is rewarded. Caring about the common good and the intertwined fates of others is considered a waste of time at best, a joke at worst.
Yet, it’s clear my privileged students know that they can look forward to lives of economic security only if they buy into the neoliberal dream of unfettered freedom to make money without any respect for boundaries or regulations. But students are disturbed by this, and understand that there will be big prices to pay for the glorification of greed and rapacious practices before they reach middle age. At present, there does not seem to be a clear and convincing alternative to the path they’ve been forced to pursue. My students, no less than young people who are not privileged, need new visions and frameworks of action as the ecological, governmental, economic, and ideological systems that have underpinned human society for millennia collapse like dominoes. This is not an American problem, but rather, a universal human dilemma that touches everyone on the planet. Perhaps the sudden rise of nationalism, fascism, and greed in the US and Europe is nothing but the death throes of the old order, the last stand of the rich, white, and violent male power structures that have wrought havoc on the world for generations. As my students graduate, I hope they will rediscover hope, enthusiasm, and the courage to be the change they want—and need—to see in the world.
(Read the Arabic version of this article here.)