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Willem Lange: What’s Really the Matter With Kids Today?

A sure sign that the apocalypse is upon us: My old prep school, which has boasted a strong football program for many decades (It was venerable when I was there, and I’ve had my 60th reunion.), has just dropped the sport. The reason? Participation has dropped to the point that it’s now difficult to field a competitive team.

I’m sure many old-school gridders are growling about the move, but I see it as just one more bit of evidence of enlightenment among the young. As my old friend the late John Curtis, a longtime Dartmouth coach once told me, “Eight years of football — high school and college — and the chances are better than 50 percent that you’ll have a permanent knee injury.” Add to that the growing concern about the effects of repeated head trauma, and you may be weighing the questionable benefits of machismo against those of unimpaired brain function.

A topic sentence that invariably makes me fume begins, “Kids these days ...” Those words precede a lament comparing the behavior of the current crop of young people to that of the speaker, who is one or two generations older. The lament betrays an utter ignorance of our own personal history — how soon we forget the distraction, and even despair, we visited upon our parents in our day — and history in general: Middle-aged folks have been saying this for millennia, in recent years with a reference to something called a handbasket, whatever that is. And yet, after all that sustained effort, this civilization, at least, hasn’t reached hell.

This past weekend being the celebration of Independence Day, Mother and I held our annual viewing of the film Gettysburg. That battle, you will recall, was fought during the first three days of July, culminating in the retreat of the Confederate army on Independence Day — the same day that General Grant, in the western theater, was finally able to report the fall of the city of Vicksburg. Though the war continued for nearly two more awful years, that week marked the high tide of the Southern cause.

Four months later, the federal cemetery at Gettysburg was dedicated. Among all the dignitaries and high-powered orators, President Lincoln’s appearance was almost an afterthought; it seemed that re-election was becoming increasingly unlikely. But the organizers failed to reckon with Lincoln’s profound grasp of history and his ability to see panoramas far more expansive than could any of his political peers. When, for example, General Meade cabled him after the victory at Gettysburg that the rebels were finally leaving “our soil,” Lincoln answered, admonishing him that the country was all “our soil.”

The day of the dedication of the cemetery, the famous orator and sometime president of Harvard, Edward Everett, gave the keynote address, speaking for over two hours. Following his well-received words, Lincoln spoke only about 270 words — a two-minute speech written on scratch paper on the train from Washington — and felt as he finished that he had failed. Only those in the crowd who could fully understand him (Everett among them) grasped the significance of what he had said. Everett later wrote to him, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

I’m delighted that “kids these days” are studying and memorizing the Gettysburg Address. (At the same time, I deeply regret that the address is likely not a featured part of the high school curriculum in Southern schools.) It focuses, as no other speech I can think of, on the creation and preservation of a “new nation” dedicated to human equality. Using the image of nativity (“brought forth ... conceived in liberty ... new birth of freedom”), Lincoln reinforces the fragility of an infant and the possibilities inherent in nourishing and defending it to maturity.

That war, unfortunately, is still being fought in parts of the United States. The Lost Cause, as it’s called, is very powerful in stoking resentment of the victors. The writer Paul Theroux recently traveled the back roads of the Old South, visiting as much as possible with folks he met along the way. He attended a gun show and remarked on the piles of Civil War memorabilia and angry bumper stickers: “Over this history of defeat was the scowling, punitive shadow of the federal government. The gun show was the one place where they could regroup and be themselves, like a clubhouse with strict admission and no windows. The gun show wasn’t about guns and gun-totin’. It was about the self-respect of men — white men, mainly, making a symbolic last stand.”

Which is pretty much the size of it. These much-reviled kids these days are vastly more tolerant of change and differences than their ancestors. They reject the religious argument against equal rights; they have faster and far more comprehensive access to information than we older folks ever dreamed of; they’re experiencing the effects of the academic wars regarding the teaching of science and history, and they understand what’s going on.

Commentator Ann Coulter recently wrote a screed against soccer that had liberals and soccer-lovers up in arms. It begins, “I’ve held off on writing about soccer for a decade — or about the length of the average soccer game — so as not to offend anyone. But enough is enough. Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.” I asked a kid what he thought of it. “Read it carefully,” he said. “She’s just pulling our leg.” Kids these days! I guess they’ll be all right.

Willem Lange’s column appears here every Wednesday. He can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.