This morning I awoke to a Facebook post about Phillips Brooks House Association’s Robert Coles “Call of Service” Lecture to be held in October. For two-years, while I was the director of Brown University’s Swearer Center for Public Service, I worked as a teaching fellow with Dr. Coles’ course, The Literature of Social Reflection. It was my first real classroom experience as a teacher, and it established many of my values as an instructor.
Beyond thinking about my gratitude for Dr. Coles’ mentorship, which I’ve written about elsewhere, the post prompted me to think about the work I did early in my career. These days it feels like the public service movement that emerged as my generation was coming of age has been erased from public consciousness. Early in my career, when I was 22 or 23 years old, it wasn’t uncommon for me to be in rooms with men and women in their mid-40s, the age I am now, who waxed poetic about the movements of their youth (and pointed fingers at me and my generation for being less committed, less altruistic, and more greedy and apathetic). Let me be clear, I don’t want to sound like my elders. I don’t mean to point fingers at the generation coming up, or to imply that my generation dropped the ball. Rather, I’m trying to understand how the leadership for a movement dissipated, how the values of the movement got diluted, and how the hopefulness I carried as a young man has turned to a suspicion about the efficacy of institutions in attending to the needs of their constituencies.
To be honest, Dr. Coles’ book, for which the lecture series is named, The Call of Service, turned me off on my first reading. It often draws upon religious and spiritual invectives to serve, and uses the metaphor of calling in a way that can make me uncomfortable. And yet, when I’m honest with myself, I realize that I was called to service work by a sense of moral obligation to confront the social imperatives of my generation. As a queer man I felt obliged to be active in both the efforts to support people living with AIDS and in liberation movements aimed at establishing equity based on sexuality and gender expression. As a member of our civil society, I felt compelled to work toward creating new means for supporting the learning of young people in the face of a system of public education that’s failed to meet the basic learning needs of a scandalous number of children. I believe that it’s critical to provide support for and create the means through which the most marginalized people in our communities can express their voices, be heard, and can strive for a sense of economic or social security. But most of all, I believe that our institutions – and by that I mean those associations in which we invest capital, give labor, and place trust — have a moral obligation to support the public engagement of us all. My calling is (or was) pragmatic and specific, not aligned with a sense of obligation to a tradition, but anchored to the real needs and real people I encounter in daily life. And I was very fortunate to have my calling supported by the institutions around me.
As Howard Swearer taught me, no generation of young people can be labeled as being apathetic. Rather we must look to the failing of our institutions in meeting their obligation to support young people’s intrinsic optimism and yearning to do work that matters. Young people, anyone of any age, who express apathy have been taught apathy; those of us called to service have been invited into public life and helped to see how their labor and commitments can matter. In the last decade, the institutions that invite and support public participation have been eroded so much that I fear few of us still believe that our labor and commitments can matter. It’s not so much that I feel apathetic; I feel betrayed by any faith I had in institutions. I don’t see any of the institutions around me, certainly not the higher education institutions to which I pay attention, fulfilling their ethical obligation to invite people into meaningful public action.
And I feel responsible.
I stepped away from my leadership in this movement because I had other aspirations to fulfill and new things to learn, but also, in honesty, I left because I felt the crush of a conservative institutional shift. The culture changed and the institution in which I was working changed with it. The idea of public participation was supplanted by a pedagogy of containment and restraint. An ethos of “let’s figure it out” was replaced by an ethos of “you don’t know enough to act.” I don’t have any illusions about fighting that particular tide, but I do ask myself now what I might do to rekindle the flame. I feel responsible for making my values manifest in the world. I just have to figure out the next step.