I’m about halfway through Andrew Bacevich’s book “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.” It’s quite interesting.
Early on, in his introduction, he makes a startling confession – “Worldly ambition inhibits true learning. Ask me. I know. A young man in a hurry is nearly uneducable.”
It’s the time of year for the commencement addresses and I doubt there will be any advice given to the graduating classes about dialing back the ambition. Most will be about seizing the future or creating a new and glorious world. I listen to the speakers or read the transcripts and wonder if they believe what they’re saying or if their lips are just moving around aimlessly for ten or fifteen minutes, hoping to hit some pliable target with advice they don’t really believe, or heed, themselves.
I graduated from high school in 1960. I don’t remember much about the commencement exercise. I don’t remember anything the commencement speaker said. It might have been profound or it might have been quite clever. Whatever it was, I missed it. About a year after that I joined the Air Force. About four years later I shipped out to Vietnam and got a real education in the gears of the Robert McNamara/Lyndon Johnson sausage machine. By 1969 I’d had enough. I spent a few years trying to figure out what I wanted to do. In 1972 I immersed myself in college. That was back in the days when the air was bristling with revolution. The campuses were overflowing with talk of turning our colleges and universities into institutions of learning and life. I observed it all from a safe distance and in time I think I figured out that there was more to being a revolutionary than throwing bricks through windows or Molotov cocktails at the police.
I suppose a lot has changed since my days in high school. Citizen Gore invented the internet and we’re all wired now. We’ve got Facebook and Twitter. We can say everything that’s on our minds in 120 characters or less. The Johnny Mathis ballads and the rock ‘n roll rhythms of Danny and the Juniors are long gone. These days we’ve got Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. The rice paddies of Southeast Asia have been replaced by the mountains of Afghanistan. The steeple on the corner has given way to the mega-church and the religious media empire. The political gravitas of the sixties is out and the political campaign as comedy is in. Did any of the budding futurists of the sixties ever consider the notion that someone like Donald Trump could be a serious candidate for the Presidency or that California would have a “governator” at the helm? (As an aside, with “the Donald” gone, who’s now poised to garner the pompous ass vote in 2012?).
Has it really been fifty years? It’s hard for me to tell. So many things look just the same now as they did back then. There are times I feel that we’re all characters in a Vonnegut short story or a Jean Paul Sartre treatise. A lot of folks are scurrying around like rats bumping their heads against the walls of a man-made maze, trying to find the exit that may not be there. Some of us have been on chapter six for some time, trying to figure out what the point is. Maybe there’s no point at all. How did Vonnegut put it?
“Oh, a sleeping drunkard up in Central Park
And a lion hunter in the jungle dark
Or a Chinese dentist and a British queen,
They all fit together in the same machine.
Nice, nice, very nice, so many different people in the same device.”
Bacehvich, the author I cited in my first paragraph came to what I believe was a profound insight – “Only as ambition wanes does education become a possibility.”
I don’t think Bacehvich will be getting any invitations to be a commencement speaker this year, next year, or any year. His advice may be sound, but it goes against the grain of just about everything we Americans believe. As the President recently put it, “We can do anything!” We can stop the oceans from rising and we can rain fire down from the heavens. And, if you don’t believe us we’ll convince you. Just ask Muammar Gadaffi.
Twenty or thirty years from now the graduates of the class of 2011 will be in charge. By that time their ambition will be in full bloom. I suspect that will mean the next generation of cult heroes will be worshipped or the latest iteration of a smart bomb will be screaming its way toward some unsuspecting tyrant’s air conditioning duct.
As the older, and wiser, generation was fond of telling mine – The more things change, the more they stay the same.”