“We were going to change the world. What went wrong?”

Not everything went wrong. In many ways we did change the world.

Continuing to describe my 50th reunion of the Harvard Class, let’s move on to a Tuesday symposium titled “We were going to change the world. What went right? What went wrong? What next?”

What indeed?

Moderated by the redoubtable David E. Kaiser (another classmate, of course), who played a prominent role in almost every symposium and discussion that I attended at this reunion, this event spoke to all of us. There were five other panelists, all of whom spoke briefly before opening up the floor to a long general discussion. Panelists included an alumna who had been an Episcopal priest in the South Bronx, a Colombian national, and three more whom I want to cite by name:

  • Physicist Irwin Gaines captured my immediate attention by referring to Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1, which I discussed two years ago. He pointed out that what the current generation has done wrong is not limited to Donald Trump and said that we have been “neglecting the future and ignoring the past.” Too harsh? Maybe so. He recommended Bruce Cannon Gibney’s A Generation of Sociopaths, which I have now added to my reading list. I’m one of those strange people who won’t comment on a book until I’ve read it, so you’ll have to wait to see what I say about it. Gaines says “A generation of baby boomers doesn’t work very well”; we’ll see what that means.
  • Attorney Lee Smith, who had been the one black student (out of 75) at St. Mark’s School in Dallas and then one of 2 (out of 100) at U.Wash. Law School) but in between was one of 35 (out of a class of 1500) at Harvard, spoke next. “We had the privilege of community,” he observed. He was the only speaker (of the ones I heard at the Reunion) to point out the loss of Camelot, which certainly had a life-long deep effect on me as it did on so many others:

I stood not ten feet away from him as he left Love Field minutes before he was shot. We were nevertheless uplifted by the promise of the Civil Rights Act and our personal witness interacting with each other for a better tomorrow.

(For those readers too young to know the Camelot reference, he’s talking about JFK.)

  • Finally, Bruce Frank, who claims that President Trump is “corrupt, immoral, unethical, and incompetent” and that “our Congress is inept and perpetuates the disparities of class and wealth and privilege,” told us that he had been radicalized at Harvard and then changed forever by his work in the Peace Corps in El Salvador. He devoted his life to serving third-world countries through the United Nations Development Programme, certainly not the usual path for Harvard alums.

After the panelists, the floor was open to general discussion by members of the class of 1969. Here are some random excerpts, sometimes with the name of the speaker attached:

  • My neighbor Brook Baker, who lives around the corner from me and is a professor at Northeastern Law School, was struck by how poorly prepared our class was to talk about corporate power. Current students know much about that than we did then.
  • Journalist Kenneth Jost observed that “‘equal justice under law’ seems an empty promise from the current Supreme Court.” But he remains an optimist: “we shouldn’t forget that sometimes the glass is half full.”
  • Andrew Rudnick was “depressed before this session but now is sad.” He sees “no organized, effective effort to bring about change.”
  • Georgetown professor Judith Tucker asked why we have heard so little at the reunion about American involvement in the Middle East. On the plus side, she pointed out that she had acquired a moral compass and lens at Harvard.
  • A classmate who shall not be named wanted to ignore the First Amendment by prohibiting lying by public figures. No comment.
  • Yale professor Bruce Wexler wondered aloud whether the anti-vaxxers are being spurred by the Russians. Could be,.
  • Someone whose name I didn’t catch urged an “information campaign” to combat the Republicans’ “disinformation campaign.”
  • Rocky Jarvis was one of the few to advocate an overtly religious point of view and said that “most of the things we’re concerned with are not quantifiable.”
  • Finally, Gerald Loev ended on a personal note of optimism: “I live in a different world than the one being described” by most people here.

I hope that the actual world is like his world. I left this symposium wondering — and exhausted. And that was only part of Tuesday, so this is going to take at least a couple of additional posts.

Categories: Life, Teaching & Learning