The Cynical Generation

Crates of Thebes, thought to be the greatest cynic of his age.

You may remember the end of John Steinbeck’s stage adaptation of, Of Mice and Men.  After accidentally killing a young woman, Lennie escapes from the men hunting him and hides near a small river, waiting for George to come and save him.  George arrives, but understanding that he can no longer protect Lennie, he makes the difficult decision to shoot him. He kills Lennie so that he will be saved from the cruelty of his pursuers.

It’s a difficult ending for a modern audience.  Killing a developmentally disabled man is complicated enough, but adding the fact that the killer is his best friend and caregiver makes an already hard to grasp ending that much more complex.  Every time I teach the play the discussion concerning the moral and ethical dilemma presented by the ending consumes most of the available class time.

But last week I was confronted by a response that I had never heard.  When I asked for opinions on what the Steinbeck was trying to say to us through the ending one normally quiet freshman offered his unique thoughts.  With some surprising degree of confidence this student said that George killed Lennie because he wanted his freedom.  George was tired of taking care of Lennie and now he could spend his money on whatever he wanted.

It was quite possibly the worst interpretation of classic literature I have ever encountered.  It was this student’s conclusion that Steinbeck wanted us to learn that relationships get in the way of whoring and boozing.  One of the masterpieces of American writing became an advertisement for keg stands and hook ups. It was the intellectual equivalent of a punch to my throat.

I could have easily dismissed this as the earnest, yet narcissistic response of a hormone crazed college student, but I think the foundation of his analysis is a serious problem for much of his generation.  I was provided more support for this idea when the next day I was in the class of a colleague reading a short play titled Sure Thing.  The play is a comedy that joyfully believes in the romantic notion that sometimes love really is a sure thing.

After the reading, the class discussed the play and there was general agreement that, while funny, the play’s message wasn’t believable.  This was the first time I had heard this particular criticism so I asked the class for a show of hands of anyone that believed in love at first sight.  Not a single one of them raised their hand.  When I said they were too cynical for their age they responded that they just knew enough to know it would never work out.  Most of these kids had lived lives free of want, but they held fast to the notion that there was nothing good or magical waiting to be found in the world.

As I asked my other classes the same question I received the same answer.  I eventually started calling them the cynical generation and they not only didn’t fight back, but embraced the title.  One student told me they were cynical because they knew so much.  It wasn’t like long ago, when I was a kid, now they have so much information available at their fingertips they can prove that any human endeavor is likely to fail.  Love, fulfillment,  and happiness, would be nice, but they’re unlikely at best and naïve fantasies for most.

It was a big surprise for me.  I’ve long considered myself a cynical bastard, but even I had dreams when I was young.  I thought I’d found a successful theatre company, marry the girl of my dreams(even if the object of those dreams changed regularly), and have enough money to creatively punish all those that wronged me.  I was also a vindictive bastard.  These dreams weren’t win the lottery type escapism, they were all things I thought I could and would do.  They were attainable goals if I worked hard and received my share of the breaks.  Too many college students simply don’t have any dreams.

Maybe this is unimportant.  Maybe now that I’ve turned forty I’m entering the, “Get off my damn lawn!” phase of my life.  But I worry about what will happen when a generation of cynical adults starts to take over the reins of power.  If you don’t believe things can be better than they are, how can you inspire a nation?  If you’re already committed to idea that relationships are doomed to failure, how can you raise healthy children of your own?

We’re already seeing some of this cynicism in our national politics.  We’re in a period where our discourse is full of absolutes about what we can’t do.  Polls suggest that Americans are less convinced than ever that future generations will have a better life.  My Facebook page is full of people convinced that one day the Chinese will rule the world.  Over the past three decades morning in America has given way to a fear of a never ending night.  And it’s bound to only get worse.

Cynicism is the lazy person’s prophylactic for pain.  Hopes and dreams aren’t always achieved and that hurts.  But, not daring to dream, not risking anything surrenders one’s self to mediocrity.  If you can’t dream it, there’s almost no way you can live it.  If your hopes are limited to a good enough job, a good enough spouse and a good enough existence, that’s what you’ll get and when you’re old and reflecting on your life you’ll be miserable in the certainty that it confirmed your cynicism.

3 thoughts on “The Cynical Generation”

  1. I think you’re on to something, Larry, but I can’t help but thinking a part of the problem is the decades long economic stagnation of the middle class. I also think the decades long attack on institutions by the GOP has had an impact. Kids grow p with greater economic insecurity and a host of voices yelling that all institutions are incompetent or corrupt.

  2. I believe it was NY Times columnist, David Brooks, who recently wrote about today’s generation not having a moral or ethical foundation upon which to judge themselves or the world. Our current emphasis on teaching to the test rather than encouraging independent thinking, to me, is a major contributing factor. Your class may be the first place college freshmen have been asked to think.

    Too many of today’s students have only been asked to master a prescribed body of knowledge and retain it long enough to regurgitate correctly on whatever required state exams they must pass. They are not asked to think about the nature of man, man’s society, what choices man is free to make, how might man affect his environment, etc. Just, take it in, don’t bite it, hold it for a while, and spit it back out when told to do so.

    Hell, I’m starting to believe I may be a cynic! 🙂

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