This is an open letter to college students from the father of a college student, who thought he was the smartest person in the world when he was your age.
Somewhere around my sophomore year, I looked around at my goofball classmates and friends, and I judged their wisdom relatively shallow and narrow, and my own deep and wide. And I thought—and wrote, in a notebook that will someday be discovered and sent to the little-known and underfunded Smithsonian Museum of Dummies & Jackasses—maybe I was the smartest person in the world. The only reason I couldn’t be absolutely sure was that I hadn’t met everybody yet.
People laugh at me when I tell them that, including me.
But I also feel that everybody ought to have a moment like that when they are young: to think that their personal, hard-won collection of wisdom and knowledge is just the thing the world needs now.
And what’s more, I think that lots of kids—college students especially—actually do have a moment like that, whether or not they allow themselves to quite admit it to themselves, in so many words.
And the thing is, kids, you are smarter than the reigning generation of adults, in a number of important ways:
First of all, you’re cleaner, and clearer—mentally, and morally—just because you’re young, and haven’t fucked a bunch of shit up. My old man used to tell me that old people are quieter “because old people have more to be quiet about.”
Second, you’ve learned more in the last 15 years than most adults learn the rest of their lives. Adults are forever smarmily reminding one another to be “lifelong learners.” But without the urgency of homework assignments and final exams, most of us live out our days “learning” more about what we already know. And you can see that.
Third, you’re more politically aware than most of your Gen-X parents were at your age. I attended Kent State University, where students died protesting the Vietnam War, in 1970. When a handful of my fellow students protested the Gulf War in 1990, I wondered: Didn’t they have anything better to do? (I was actually more politically engaged on the Kent State shooting, which my sociology professor believed President Nixon may have personally ordered.)
Fourth, the Internet. Social media has been a terrible, tragic influence on your generation—and on the life of your mind and the quality of your inner life, if it allows you to have one at all. But also, you are able to access information (and check information) infinitely faster than we could, with our sets of encyclopedias, phone books and AAA TripTiks (we’ll tell you about those sometime).
And finally, you’ve seen more than we had at your age. The fucking Gulf War? Today’s college students were born with 9/11 still smoldering, and have lived through Obama, Trump, COVID, George Floyd and January 6.
So yeah: Your eyesight is good, you’re learning every day, you’re deeply engaged, you’re armed with more information and you’ve been through some serious shit even at your young age.
I see why you think you’re so smart. I think you’re smart, too. And I want very much to hear your perspective—I mean that sincerely.
I’m far less eager to hear your chants.
Despite all your intellectual advantages, I do not have faith that your crystal-clear view on an issue thousands of years old is any more than half-correct. You should overcome your supreme self-confidence to doubt yourself, too.
Nor do my heartfelt concessions to your intelligence imply that I relinquish some of the ways in which older people are smart, too. We’ve had a lifetime to test the knowledge we learned in our own short youths; and if we’re are good adults, we have done so carefully, even methodically, over decades, in conversation with many other wise and searching people.
One of the many lessons that has seeped beneath our thick tortoise shells is that moral living in this world is not a simple matter, and a person who claims it is may be intelligent, but might as well be stupid.
And what many of your classmates are doing and saying on college campuses across the country may be well-meant and may contain real truths—but it might as well be stupid. And some of it is harmful, to many of your fellow students.
All of whom you may think you’re smarter than.
Most of whom think they’re smarter than you.
Many of whom you’ll look back laugh with wisely someday—if you don’t destroy one another now.
Please, don’t destroy one another now.