Is it even possible to have an intergenerational dialogue? Is that really what we had on Wednesday?

So, finally, it’s Wednesday, the last day of the reunion. (Well, the last day for me. I just don’t have the stamina to go to the afternoon session today or to hear Angela Merkel tomorrow.) Today’s symposium is an “intergenerational dialogue” between us (in our ’70s) and a panel of students (in their ’20s). This promised to be the sort of thing I’m used to, like this intergenerational picture from eight years ago:

Those, of course, were high-school students. But close enough. In today’s case the younger generation were two college undergrads, two grad students, and two post-grads. The students were definitely not randomly selected, as they were all Harvard student activists — nobody who is headed for Wall Street. And as for the older generation, we were definitely not randomly selected either — in the first place just by being members of the Harvard class of 1969, and in the second place by choosing this symposium instead of the two competing ones: “Emerging technologies and medical innovations” and “The role of art in social change.” No-brainer there for me.

Three of my classmates served as moderators. Primus inter pares was Terry McNally — writer, consultant, radio host, and co-producer of Earth Girls are Easy — who admitted right at the start that it’s impossible to ask anyone to represent their generation, but he asked everyone to make it clear when you were speaking for yourself and when you had reason to believe that a lot of others in your cohort shared your opinions. That worked some of the time. The other moderators were water-and-fisheries activist Valerie Nelson and the previously mentioned historian David Kaiser, who was ubiquitous at the reunion (see here and here). The students were carefully balanced, not only by age but also by gender and ethnicity — which won’t surprise anyone.

Although there were a lot of interesting points, it wasn’t really a dialogue. Mostly it reminded me of Congress: a bunch of individuals giving speeches, but not conversing. The format was the standard one for this reunion: in round one, the six students on the panel made opening remarks; in round two, we alumni spoke when called upon in random order. Here are some excerpts in the order in which they occurred:

From the students:

  • “Nobody talks about Title 9 in the context of the culture of sexual assault.”
  • “The biggest lesson I learned was that it’s necessary to built power collectively.”
  • “Have conversations with communities, not for communities.” (This grad student had attended Northeastern as an undergrad, and their coop experience formed her.” In general, there was a lot about community and social justice throughout this symposium.)
  • “Don’t give your money to this institution; give it to an organization that dismantles the prison-industrial complex, which destroys communities.”
  • “This activism wasn’t present on campus ten years ago.” (She was a transfer student from Cal Tech.)
  • “The fossil fuel divestment drive on campus was directly inspired by the student strike of 1969… If Harvard took a stand today, other schools would follow immediately.”
  • “Harvard cares more about its money than its students.”
  • “Can Warren and Buttigieg work together in a common effort?”

And from the alumni:

  • “Viewing issues in terms of demographics began with us baby boomers.”
  • “We have to make common sacrifice part of what we do.”
  • “We might have to reform institutions from the inside.”
  • “There’s nobody of the intermediate generations here, yet they’re the people who are running the world.” (Is that really true? There seem to be an awful lot of older people running the world.)

I want to conclude with a few final thoughts and general observations that don’t fit into any specific place.

In three of my previous five posts about this reunion, I used the word ”exhausting.” Indeed it was, partly because of the intensity of the content and partly because of the scheduling. Typically we might have 15 minutes between consecutive symposia, but the first five were taken up because of running late, the next five were taken up getting from one building to another, and that left us only five minutes. Many of us can’t move around quickly as quickly as we could when we were college students. A side-effect is that people kept drifting in to talks late, especially because almost all speakers/moderators were careful to start on time (if not to end on time).

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that our college experience was formed in large part by long conversations at 2-hour meals. Apparently those no longer occur — surely to the detriment of the education of current students. I assume that this is because of what Sherry Turkle talked about in her keynote: everyone would rather be glued to their phones than take time for long conversations.

A random observation: in a large group, it’s always annoying (and time-wasting) to have to wait until an usher hands you the portable microphone so that you can speak. I don’t know whether this is standard nowadays, but at all our symposia they used microphones embedded in several inches of foam, so the usher could just toss it someone, and then that person could toss it to the next speaker, and so forth!

Finally, I may have mentioned this before, but there’s a reason I had never gone to a previous reunion: I feared and expected that most of the time would be taken up with socializing and parties. But not at this one! The talks and symposia may have felt too intense at times, but I loved the experience and it was so much more comfortable than unstructured get-togethers would have been! An excellent experience, leaving me a lot to think about.

Categories: Life, Teaching & Learning