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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Paul Cantor

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

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I am not a professional futurologist and am, in fact, profoundly skeptical about attempts to predict something as complicated as the future of America. The problem with predicting the future is that we generally assume that it will be created by people just like us, only living in the future. But the future is going to be the future precisely because it will be created by people who are different from us in ways that we cannot anticipate. We normally ask older people to predict the future, because they have had the time to become experts of one kind or another. We should instead be asking five-year olds. Short of that, I will say something about 18-year olds. As a college professor, I do have some knowledge of America’s youth.

Here I have every reason to be pessimistic, and yet I remain cautiously optimistic. Despite my grave doubts about the direction higher education is taking in the United States, I cannot help being impressed by individual students I encounter, both at my own university and at other campuses I visit. And what surprises me is not so much their schooling as their character. I still see students who are freedom-loving, self-reliant, resourceful, willing to take responsibility and risks, and open to genuine challenges—in short, Americans at their best. This is all the more remarkable when, from what I can tell, our whole world, and especially our educational institutions, are working to make young people weak and dependent. Maybe formal schooling is not as important as we academics would like to think. A look at history suggests that Americans have often achieved great things in spite of their formal education rather than because of it. Among nations, America can pride itself on being the land where high school and college dropouts can not only survive but also sometimes succeed beyond their wildest dreams—and ours.

In looking for factors that are still building character in American youth, I think of several traditional explanations. It really helps when a student comes from a two-parent family, in which both take an active interest in his or her development. Athletics builds character and helps toughen up young men and women. Provided that they do not become in effect professional athletes in high school or college, they can experience in sports one of the few remaining areas where objective achievement is still measured—and demanded.

But there are some new forces working to inspire independence in today’s youth: the Internet and social media. These are often accused of corrupting youth, and to the extent that they appeal to a virtual herd instinct, they are creating new forms of dependence. But cyberspace is also the new frontier for the most ambitious and audacious of our youth, and it’s teaching them anew the value of freedom. They resent attempts to censor and otherwise regulate their freedom of expression. They have learned to appreciate new forms of freedom of exchange, and a new generation of cyber entrepreneurs is being born before our eyes.

I am sure to be bombarded with statistics that show how poorly today’s young Americans do on tests and how low they rank compared with students in, say, Finland. To such criticism—aside from asking, “What has Finland done for us lately, besides the newest Rautavaara symphony and some Nokia phones?”—I would reply that standardized exams do not test character, and all they offer are statistical aggregates and averages. I am not talking about the average youth of today or tomorrow. America has never depended on the achievement of average people. What has made America great is that, by and large, it has given the most talented and spirited among its youth a chance to show their stuff. If I am pessimistic, the reason is that this American tradition is being eroded by all sorts of factors, most of them emanating from Washington, D.C. But if I nevertheless remain optimistic, it’s because I still see exceptional young people in my classes and I can feel them straining to do something exceptional with their lives. If only we would get out of their way.

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Paul Cantor is Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Virginia. His most recent book, coedited with Stephen Cox, is Literature and the Economics of Liberty (Ludwig von Mises Institute).



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