This month, I am marking 30 years of leading an organization that provides opportunities for college students to intern and study in Washington, D.C., and internationally. My time at The Fund for American Studies (TFAS) has provided perspective on how students have changed over those three decades, both in terms of their understanding of our country and in their preparation for making their way in the world.
The differences between young people 30 years ago and today are profound. For one, the social world today’s young people inhabit has actually become smaller. Students in recent years have had many more opportunities for international travel, whether for study or recreation. To an extent, this has diminished traditional ties to community and country and broadened their desires for internationally focused careers. Similarly, young people today are generally less tolerant of conflicting opinions in their own social circles. A sizeable number prioritize inclusivity over free speech, while many support “canceling” those who express unorthodox or opposing viewpoints. At TFAS, we promote an absolute commitment to seeking truth through the free exchange of ideas in an open and civil learning environment.
We must nurture young people’s innate understanding that the country of their mothers and fathers is a force for good in the world, both today and throughout history.
The digital revolution has also brought about significant changes. Each day, social media consumes hours of time, which would otherwise be spent at study, with family, friends, or at an event involving social interaction. Perhaps as a result, students today are generally less informed about history and civics than in past years, even though information is more plentiful today than three decades ago. They are still determined to improve the world and make a difference, but they are less prepared to do so. We do our part by teaching the tools of economics and the lessons of history, so they recognize that every action or policy proposal has tradeoffs and unintended consequences. Teaching students about opportunity costs and the seen and unseen results of a policy proposal can make a remarkable difference in how they approach the world.
Perhaps the most significant differences I’ve noticed are psychological. My generation — the baby boomers — had a sense that the world was ours to conquer in terms of being able to go as far as your skills, hard work, and diligence would take you. The American Dream was fully alive. Success in life was up to an individual, not the circumstances in which they were born. Unfortunately, we’ve created a culture of dependency that has severely damaged the spirit of self-reliance that was largely responsible for our nation’s past successes. Today, many young people believe that their destiny is shaped by forces beyond their control. Sadly, many also accept the idea that they should look to government to provide life’s necessities.
All is not lost, however. While Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and the more recent New York Times’ 1619 Project have had the intended effect of distorting our historical understanding and diminishing the achievements of the American founding, I am pleasantly surprised that many young people still appreciate our country’s origins. When I ask students what historical figures they would most like to join for a hypothetical dinner, more often than not the answer is Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, or Abraham Lincoln. Many are interested in learning more about the American history they haven’t been exposed to in school, thanks to the liberal academic establishment and their social-media bubbles. Despite the narratives they may hear from pundits and politicians, the young people coming to our programs don’t view our country as irredeemably corrupt.
Therein lies the key. As a society, we must nurture young people’s innate understanding that the country of their mothers and fathers is a force for good in the world, both today and throughout history. We must do a better job of explaining which ideas and institutions lead to prosperity and human flourishing, as well as the importance of rejecting the notion that government can be expected to be both wise and benevolent in directing human activity. In other words, we must emphasize the once universally held American idea that the individual is sovereign and rights come from God, not government. By doing so, we can ensure the unique American spirit will survive for generations to come.
Roger Ream is the president of The Fund for American Studies (TFAS), a nonprofit educational organization that promotes the principles of limited government, free-market economics and honorable leadership.