October 22, 2019

The Unbearable Lightness of Dignity

Like many adults, I don’t remember my high school graduation, let alone who spoke or what was said. Like many teens, high school for me was a fusion of the best (first love) with the worst (vicious girl cliques). But more than anything, graduation meant escape from the parental cocoon; I was eager to experience the world and find my role in it.

Unlike teens today, though, the world I wanted to experience was not dealing with a radical upsurge of anti-Semitism; it was not dealing with a political ideology that not only excuses this bigotry but excuses a slew of illiberal tenets that profoundly affect today’s college education. 

So how does one prepare high school grads for this? It is overwhelming to even consider. And yet today’s teens may end up being one of the stronger generations precisely because of this daunting task. If I were a parent of a graduating teen, these are the ideas I would emphasize:

You are a unique individual. Your professors and classmates are going to try to label you, box you into a group “identity,” and say that because you are part of that identity, you should apologize for your existence. 

Don’t listen to them. The most important part of who you are is your individuality. Cherish it. Don’t let anyone — most especially professors — take it from you. If you have a professor who makes adhering to identity politics part of your grade, switch schools. Switch schools — and then write about it. Because of the ineptitude of college administrators in dealing with faux professors, you may become an ideological warrior. It may not always be fun, but you will never regret it, I can assure you of that.

Find the professors who want to teach, not brainwash. They exist, but they may have been keeping a low profile. What’s the quick test? If a professor tells the class his or her personal politics — on anything. You should not know if your professor is left, right or apolitical. If a professor is known for making his or her personal beliefs a mainstay of the class, indoctrination is sure to follow.

Although college is a time for self-exploration, don’t overdo it.

Strive for excellence, not perfection. Excellence is achieving the best you could possibly achieve — and then some. Perfection is unachievable. Striving for it leads to all sorts of emotional problems as well as to the totalitarian thinking we now suffer from on both the left and the right.

Create, create, create. Although college is a time for self-exploration, don’t overdo it. Meaning, all of those confused thoughts and feelings may just be confused thoughts and feelings. The best use of excess emotional energy? Turn it into a creative project: Take the focus off of yourself and create something magnificent.

Embrace complexity not relativism. The polarization that will no doubt exist on your campus has numerous sources. One is scarcity of people willing to speak about issues in nuanced, complex terms. Be that person. At the same time, resist trendy cultural and moral relativism. One person’s terrorists are not another person’s freedom fighters. The two groups could not be less alike. Don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise.

Jewish students: You are Maccabees. Finally, if you’re a Jewish student, I can’t urge you to fight against anti-Semitism at every turn. From what we’ve seen, groups intent on destroying Israel, like Students for Justice in Palestine and (the scandalously named) Jewish Voice for Peace, have made many campuses into hellholes, only slightly less dangerous than living near Hamas. I don’t think I could have faced their hate, bigotry and ignorance on a daily basis.

But I hope that you will always remember this: You are a Maccabee. You have a 3,000-year legacy of ancestors who survived much worse. Don’t let anyone gaslight you into thinking that Israel is the problem. Don’t let anyone tell you that you must be more compassionate to people who want to kill you. 

Stand tall, proud and brave. They may call you all sorts of names. But no one can take away truth, history or your self-respect. At some point, you will begin to feel the unbearable lightness of dignity. It may end up being the most important thing you take from your college years.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic.