The Good Life:
Plausible Lies and Fantastic Truths

by Peter J. Gomes


In Search of Nobility and a More Excellent Way

"But earnestly desire the higher gifts, and I will show you a still more excellent way." I Corinthians 12:31 (RSV)

Harvard Yard is never more grand than it is on Commencement Day. Beneath its shading elms, thirty thousand proud parents, friends, and pumped-up, soon-to-be-graduates sit in the glow of unmitigated mutual self-congratulation. On the platform in front of the towering portico of the University's Memorial Church, dedicated to the Harvard dead of America's twentieth century wars, sit the great and the good, which includes faculty from all over the world, resplendent in academic regalia; candidates for honorary degrees and the University's most favored guests of the day; and the vaguely familiar faces of those who actually run the place, the members of the Governing Boards, the deans, and the administrators. Harvard Commencement is arguably America's oldest continuing public ceremony, doing business since 1642 in essentially the same form.

Into this heady mix of pomp and circumstance, the undergraduate speaker rose, doffed his cap and made his ceremonial bow to the President, squared his feet at the microphone, and began his five minute oration. Unlike at most American colleges, Harvard does not have to endure a major address at the time it gives out its degrees, and thus the only speeches are those given by three students, one speech of which is in Latin and thus mercifully inaccessible to all but the seniors and faculty who have been provided a translation. Our young orator could be expected to touch upon the usual pieties: students helping one another through the trials of college life, the sense of joy and relief at going out into the 'real' world, and the greatness of Harvard and, by implication, of its newest graduates. It became clear early on, however, that this young orator was not proposing to rest content with the conventional wisdom of Commencement Day.

After invoking a litany of Harvard greats: John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, W.E.B. DuBois, Helen Keller, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, he asked what they all had in common, and answered his own question. "Dead," he said; "they are all dead. The University now belongs to us, as do the times. What will we do with them?" Earlier generations had been summoned from the Commencement platform to lives of conflict and responsibility. The grandparents of many seniors -- the much-celebrated 'Greatest Generation' -- had grown up in the great Depression and responded to the demands of World War II and Korea. The parents of many present on this day had found themselves engaged in the war in or about Vietnam, and for many others of that era there had been struggles for civil rights and women's rights, and the peace movement. Our orator asked of his classmates, "What will be our call to greatness, our summons to nobility? In this season of endless prosperity and self-interestedness, is there anything that will require the best of what we have to offer? Is there any cause great or good enough to provoke goodness and greatness in us?"

As with much discourse, the questions were better than the answers, and our young speaker received a polite but not enthusiastic response to his eloquence. The alumni magazine, in fact, took so little notice of the speech that neither it nor the speaker were mentioned in its major news and feature accounts of Commencement. The question of a call to nobility, however, touched a nerve among many of the young present that morning.

My own observation had long been that students were becoming increasingly restive about the moral dimension of their education. Certainly they appreciated the opportunity provided by study at a great university, and most of them had done reasonably well at their tasks and had had some fun into the bargain. Nearly all of them had interesting futures upon which to enter as soon as they left Cambridge, which included going on to graduate and professional schools, taking up foreign fellowships and travel or coveted entry-level positions with New York consultancy or financial houses, or even a little unprogrammed R&R; but as one student pointed out to me, "My parents have had me on this college track since I was in day care, and now, after twenty-two years, I'd like a little time to myself."

Noble thoughts would appear to be far away from the minds of this indulged and indulgent generation, yet many conversations over recent years have told me otherwise. More and more students are asking questions about the moral use of their lives and their education, and of their value, when value questions about education used to be rigorously utilitarian. "How much is my degree worth," the students used to ask; "and how much will it get me of this world's goods?" It is not because of the intrinsic intellectual merit of the field of economics that most undergraduates have chosen to major in that subject over the past decade. The primacy of economics, the so-called 'dismal science,' is acute everywhere, and particularly so at Harvard, where the last three Commencement speakers have included such economic super-stars as Amartya Sen, Alan Greenspan, and Robert Rubin, and where the new president, Lawrence H. Summers, who served briefly as Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration, is an economist by profession. The value questions now, however, which were once tied to potential net worth, increasingly have to do with matters of moral value, public and private virtue, and a sense of a fit vocation for making a good life and not just a good living.

Our student orator of Commencement Day was my student and is now my friend, and over the course of his college career we had many conversations about the large questions of value, virtue, worth, and vocation, and what, if anything, his college education had to do with any of them. He and many of his classmates had recognized a disconnect between the ideas and moments of which they had heard and read in their studies, and the sense of what it is that they would be called upon to do in life beyond simply satisfying a set of course requirements.

Except for the occasional deferential nod to the notion of public service, American higher education in the last decades of the twentieth century has seemed to go out of its way to avoid any kind of moral claims upon the minds, hearts, and lives of its young constituents. It almost seems as though with the death of the concept of in loco parentis, and the demise of parietal rules and dress codes, any claims for public good on behalf of the highly-educated young was considered, if at all, either in the Baccalaureate sermon or in the Commencement address, where it was offered too late to do much harm or to be of much good. In 1701, for instance, Yale was founded to fit the best and the brightest for "service in church and state," which fairly well summed up eighteenth century Connecticut's public sector; and nearly every other American college since has stored among its founding documents a notion having to do with the noble civic and virtuous ends for the public good, toward which the educational product of the institution was directed.

Excellence and fairness

At Sunday lunch following a preachment at Cornell University a few years ago, I found myself engaged in a lively conversation with the new president of the university, Dr. Hunter Rawlings. We spoke of many things, and in particular of his transition from the classroom to the top academic job. The conversation turned to the subject of university values and of what the university holds most dear, and without which it would not possible to be the university, or to be recognizable as such. Earlier generations had been pleased to place their moral ambitions in florid Latin inscriptions over the doors of libraries, on coats of arms emblazoned over the fronts of administration buildings, and alluded to in the ceremonial conferrals of degrees. When Harvard's Memorial Hall, for example, was erected as a memorial to the Union dead of the Civil War, it was the largest academic building then standing in North America, and it was dedicated to Humanitas, Virtus, and Pietas. The very words 'humanity,' 'virtue,' and 'piety,' now have a somewhat antique, quaint sound; and if there were to be a contest to find a suitable inscription for a university building today, it would be impossible to find a consensus for any sentiment worthy of perpetuation in stone. That is, unless Hunter Rawlings is right in his discovery that the values of truth or of virtue, of service, or even of learning, teaching, or wisdom are not the values that the modern university most espouses, but rather those of excellence and of fairness.

Every university, and every aspect of every university, Professor Rawlings noted, aspires to excellence. It is no good to be number two, and it is upon that ambition that national surveys of American colleges and universities depend in order to keep up their circulation. Who can be against excellence? Surely, in the modern university, no one would make the argument that Richard Nixon made when one of his nominees for a seat on the Supreme Court was deemed less than excellently learned in law. In fact, the judge was described as mediocre. Nixon's response, not at all ironic, was that the mediocre deserved as much to be represented on the high court as did the excellent.

Every year our colleges tell their entering freshmen that they form "the most excellent class of people ever to be admitted to old 'Siwash University.'" Proud parents are prepared to believe that statement for they are paying enough for it to be true, and the students believe it, up to a point, as an innocent, even useful fiction, although most of them really know better. They know the truth about themselves, or at least they suspect of themselves that there is less there than meets the admissions committee eye, but they are determined to prove themselves against the high expectations of the admissions process. So, to that end they spend the best years of their lives in attempting to perpetrate an impossible goal: the justification of their own merit. One bright young pupil observed to me many years ago, "My parents think I'm excellent, and so does the school: I'm the only one who knows better, and the tension between reality and expectation is killing me."

Excellence, of course, presupposes merit, and meritocracy is one of the hallmarks of a modern university education. If everyone is excellent, however, not only is the term meaningless, but it requires a cohort of the less-than-excellent by which excellence can be measured. For it all to work as well as it can, as one admissions officer once suggested to me, the trick is to choose the bottom half of the class with the same care as the top half, while mindful of the fact that excellence comes in many forms and is measured in many ways.

Excellence seems a rather abstract and cold virtue, for simply to be the best at what one does without reference to what one does empties the term of any moral content. Al Capone was an excellent gangster, very good at what he did and perhaps even the best; but surely, even in the age of the nearly universal appeal of 'The Sopranos,' we would not hold him as an example to be emulated, or as a person to be rewarded simply because he was the very best at what he did.

The other virtue identified by Dr. Rawlings, that of fairness, is designed to assure that whatever is done is done properly, and in a way that is transparently equal to all concerned. As a trustee of a small liberal arts college, I once served on the Committee on Promotion, Review, and Tenure. There I learned that academic fairness, essential in the granting of a job for life, could be compromised in the tenure process only by the consideration of inappropriate things in the candidate's case, such as a handicap, a protected disability, or gender or sexual issues; or by a failure to abide by the agreed-upon process, otherwise known as improper consideration. Fairness in admissions and promotion, indeed in the conduct of all of the affairs of the institution, is essential to the well-being of the institution and in the interests of all who would benefit from the institution.

Well, our institutions abound in excellence and fairness, but is that good enough? Is ambition and process enough for those who seek what St. Paul once called "a more excellent way?"

Among the many groups of students with which I have worked over the years, none has given me more pleasure or moral encouragement than the groups of very secular students engaged in what is loosely called 'public service.' Harvard has Phillips Brooks House, the largest extracurricular activity in the College, which engages nearly a third of the student population in some form of good works. Many other colleges have similar organizations, most of which began out of the religious motivations of the old YMCAs and YWCAs of nearly a century ago, and the sense of noblesse oblige and social service that embraced the fundamental moral principle of giving back. These institutions generally had long slipped from their old religious moorings, and gained a new life in the post-Watergate environment of the 1970s. Harvard's then president, Derek Bok, and other university and college leaders of the day, were horrified that Watergate might engender a cynicism in the young which would make them suspicious of government, indifferent to service, and generally incapable of civic virtue. So, along with academic efforts of 'values clarification' and 'moral reasoning' -- secular efforts designed anew to help teach students how to be and to do good -- public service and volunteerism re-emerged as a central priority of extracurricular life, even producing in some enthusiastic institutions the oxymoron of 'compulsory volunteerism.'

In the early September days of 2001, during the week before September 11th, I attended what was called a 'Public Service Summit.' Dozens of Harvard's most active student public service leaders held a two-day conference in which they discussed their aims and objectives for the year and, at a deeper level, good and bad motivations for public service. The bad reasons for it included resume-building, bossing people around, playing out a private agenda on those unable to resist it, power-tripping, and social condescension. The good reasons included a desire for social reform, and not merely the palliatives of social service; a learning experience that not only transcended the classroom but transformed the participant; and a sense that it was worthwhile to participate in something that was truly good and truly great.

In the question period, after a few stabs at particular situations, one of the students, not by any means a bomb thrower, asked why it was that his university, which was teaching about virtue and presumably encouraging him in the pursuit of it, stood as an institution squarely in the way of every virtuous and humane civic, social, and political change that he and his fellow social activists were trying to achieve. "Why, in these matters," he asked, "is our College nearly always our enemy?"

Clearly, pieties about the need of the University to protect its assets from partisan attacks by keeping out of public policy matters would cut little ice here. Students had been demonstrating in the late spring for a cause known as 'A Living Wage,' for Harvard's lowest paid workers, and part of what drove that argument, and fueled a long and loud occupation of a university building in the first such occupation in many years, was a sense of economic justice. There was also the distinct sense of embarrassment that the very university which purported to be interested in the values and moral life of its students was not prepared, as a corporation, to exercise any moral judgement that would compromise its own security and well-documented wealth.

The moral embarrassment was not dissimilar to that felt by the parental generation of the 1960s, which, while its members resented any implication that their University should interfere in their own private moral lives, nonetheless wanted it to live up to their public moral ideals, and were ashamed when it could not or would not practice those standards. In this 2001 demonstration, one of the most vociferous of the student leaders confronting the University's policies was the daughter of a man who had played the same role thirty years before, and had been disciplined for it. One student asked me at the summit meeting, more in sadness than in anger, "Why can't Harvard be both great and good at the same time?"

The question is, of course, not peculiar to Cambridge nor to this generation, but in this generation the search for goodness, both institutional and personal, has reappeared as a defining characteristic in young people's renewed search for the good life. Their colleges and universities have much to say about excellence and fairness, yet somehow are reluctant to speak about goodness; and in their silence on that topic they seem unable to hear that the fundamental question of the young committed to their care today is, simply, "What will it take for me to make a good life, and not merely a good living?"

The academy does not know how to respond to such a reactionary perception of the role of goodness in education. "We are in the knowledge business," one of my colleagues is quick to remind me; "not in the virtue business." Another reacts with the well-worn aphorism of Mae West. When questioned by an admirer, "My goodness, where did you get those pearls?" that famous lady replied: "Goodness had nothing to do with it."

Who are these people?

Images of drugged-out, body-pierced, alienated, estranged black-clad Gothic youth capable of Columbine, and anarchic apostles of the white-rapper hip-hop group Eminem, compete with pictures of hapless teenaged loners whose cries for help include shooting anybody who gets in the way of their rage. Not since the early movies portraying 'angry young men' such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, have America's young people been seen as such a cultural threat, and yet, if we can believe a new study on what is called the 'millennial generation' -- those born in or after 1982 -- that image is both inaccurate and about to be superceded. In their book Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, Neil Howe and William Strauss write:

"As a group, Millennials are unlike any other youth generation in living memory. They are more numerous, more affluent, better educated, and more ethnically diverse. More important, they are beginning to manifest a wide array of positive social habits that older Americans no longer associate with youth, including a new focus on teamwork, achievement, modesty, and good conduct. Only a few years from now, this can-do youth revolution will overwhelm the cynics and pessimists. Over the next decade, the Millennial Generation will entirely recast the image of youth from downbeat and alienated to upbeat and engaged -- with potentially seismic consequences for America." (P.4)

Howe and Strauss compare their findings with the cynical sentiments of a Newsweek column, which said: "Kids today, they're just no good. No hardships + no cause = boredom, anger, and idiocy;" and they could not disagree more with the conventional wisdom of the punditry. Rather than just another alphabet-labelled lost generation, the Millennials are described as a 'found' generation whose characteristics are essentially optimistic, cooperative, respectful of authority, rule-followers, bright, progressive, and engaged. One young person interviewed gave this self-description of her generation, "We're the kids who are going to change things."

To those generations which have given up expecting good news from their young, this account of the new Millennials could not be coming at a better time, and not a day too soon. What is remarkable about all of this is that much of it could have been anticipated by the changing college culture of the last decade. Stimulated by Howe and Strauss's observations of high school youth, I began to ask their questions and apply their conclusions to my experience of college young people, and I must confess that my experience of the fundamental ambitions of college youth confirms their findings. Seth Moulton's Commencement speech on the search for noble purpose and useful service was, in part, a result of the kind of college community in which he had lived for four years. That community is a combination of aggressive self-interest and idealism that continues on the basis of its founding altruism to appeal to that very same quality in a diverse community which must struggle to have its values defined and affirmed against the prevailing culture. Ironically, it is the ancient mission of the modern university, and the moral energy of its newest members, that may well renew both college and society in the image of what Strauss and Howe call "the next great generation."

If that is so, they will have accomplished a revolution far more significant than all of the student protests of the 1960s and the curricular 'reforms' of the 1970s and 1980s; but without these earlier, often inchoate spasms of reformation, the present moment of potential transformation would not be possible. While colleges are still easy to criticize as elitist, "out of the main-stream," and "ivory towers," and their relation to the "real world" marginal, one must conclude that after a generation of diversity-building in the American college -- the self-conscious determination to change the demographics of higher education -- most of our young people are educated in institutions that bear a greater resemblance to the "real world" than to the communities from which they come, and are more likely to reflect the world into which they will graduate. To stand at a campus intersection at the change-over between classes in any American college or university, in these early days of the twenty-first century, is to see not simply a spectrum of America, but increasingly a spectrum of the world. If the saying is true that students learn more from other students than from their teachers, and more in the dining hall and dormitory than in the lecture hall or library, then we can expect that our young people will emerge from these institutions more cosmopolitan, more urbane, more capable of dealing with differences, more willing to find their places in a world that looks less and less like the homes from which they came, and less intimidated by change.

When on Sunday mornings I look out at my congregation, I see something of that same diversity, and a generational mix punctuated by a genuine spiritual hunger, an intellectual acuity, and a desire -- I will even say a passion -- for goodness. Excellence and fairness are assumed, and it is good that they can be assumed, but most people would argue that as good as that is, it is not good enough. What has moved and stimulated me over the years is the ever-growing sense that young people, as self-aware a group as could be imagined, are eager to translate what they know and feel into something useful and good that they can do and be. Howe and Strauss calls this a "capacity for greatness."

The great nineteenth century American preacher, Phillips Brooks, preaching to the great and the good of Boston and of Harvard in that century of optimism, could perhaps have been expected to have cheered on the young with pious tales encouraging self-esteem, yet one of his most famous sermons spoke of the frustration of unrealized moral potential in the young. In a sermon he titled Unlighted Candles, Brooks wrote:

"What shall we make of some man rich in attainments and in generous desires, well-educated, well-behaved, who has trained himself to be a light and help to other men, and who, now that his training is complete, stands in the midst of his fellow men completely dark and helpless?"

Then, with the devastating figure which gives title to this sermon on the young he says:

"These men are unlighted candles…They are the spirit of man, elaborated, cultivated, finished to its very finest, but lacking the least touch of God. So dark in this world is a long row of cultivated men…to whom there has come no fire of devotion, who stand in awe and reverence before no wisdom greater than their own."

Brooks was speaking of the scions of the Gilded Age -- and he could have been speaking of their late twentieth century descendants, the so-called 'dot-commers' -- who celebrated the culture of greed in the 1980s classic movie Wall Street, and were styled by Tom Wolfe as 'Masters of the Universe.' What would surprise Brooks one hundred years after his sermon Unlighted Candles, and the waste of a great moral potential, is the sense that this present generation of young people, the so-called 'Millennials,' is indeed seeking a wisdom greater than its own, and that its young people even aspire to be lights shining in the world's darkness.

Seth Moulton entitled his Commencement oration Achieving Greatness, and it delivered not the usual invitation to go out and make a success of oneself. Describing the Western world of most of his listening contemporaries as "dominated by contentment and threatened by mediocrity," he invited his classmates to become the kind of people who are "bold and courageous...who are willing to take extraordinary steps to an uncertain future." Then, as if in contemplation of some summons to an as yet unidentified difficult challenge on some future day, he cited a favorite aphorism: "When you're damned if you do and damned if you don't; always do." Within three short months, and before the start of the next academic year, that challenge would present itself on the morning of September 11th, 2001.

After the fall

In The Boston Globe of Monday, September 10th, 2001, under a column entitled 'Don't sell teens short -- they are the future,' Lily Rayman-Read, a senior at Lexington High School, in that historic Massachusetts town famous for the opening skirmishes of the American Revolution, described her summer job as part of a Boston inner-city garden project:

"Garden Futures is an organization that connects people in different communities and neighborhoods by cultivating and developing a garden, and through these community gardens many bonds are formed, and a sense of community is strengthened... By meeting so many different people, I learned a great deal about the significance of diversity for gardens and for people."

There was also a greater lesson that she learned and wished to share. Acknowledging that "teenagers have a reputation for apathy and not caring about the world around us..." Lily went on to note: "the truth is, we do care; we often just don't know what to do or how to make a difference." I doubt very much that young Lily had read Howe and Strauss's new book, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, or that she could have anticipated the calamitous events that within twenty-fours of the appearance of her article in the newspaper would destabilize her world forever, but in the final paragraph of her article, which was prominently sited on the op-ed page, she wrote:

"Thanks to my experiences throughout the summer, I realize that all teenagers have the power to make a difference for ourselves and for our communities. If people gave us the chance to help out, I think the world would be surprised at just how committed teens can be in improving the world around us, because we are, after all, the future."

Lily's homily was lost in the terror of the next day and the epidemic of anxiety that has since been stylized simply as '9/11,' but in her appeal to allow the realization of the potential goodness and greatness of her much-maligned generation, she has placed herself and her peers in the face of the greatest challenge to face our nation since the Civil War, the last time American blood was spilled on American soil.

The question for each rising generation since World War II has always been this: In the absence of a crisis, would the young know one when they saw one, and would they be capable of rising to meet it, indulged and diverted as they had been for nearly all of their young lives? The story is yet to be told about the young's capacity to respond to the events of September 11th, but it certainly seems as if they have been in preparation for a long while for such a claim on their sense of identity and purpose. The Seths, the Lilys, and the thousands described as the 'next great generation' seem to have anticipated the character-forming sense of crisis as a moment of moral opportunity, a proving ground for what the Bible calls, in St. Paul's words, "a more excellent way." In the aftermath of September 11th we have seen the young willingly respond to the call of their country for both military and social service. We have seen heroic youthful volunteer efforts in light of the horrific needs at Ground Zero. We have seen a revival of youthful patriotism, not simply of the flag-waving "USA,USA" sporting-events sort, but of a desire to -- in the famous and at once antique phrase of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address -- "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask rather what you can do for your country." This youthful new patriotism, as I will call it, manifests itself within the new realities of our pluralistic culture and world.

Among the many urgent concerns I heard in the College Yard on the afternoon of September 11th was the desire for the well-being of Muslim students, and especially of those from Arab lands. In the Christian prayer groups which sprang into action within hours of the terrible news from New York, prayers for "our Muslim brothers and sisters" were uttered with a sincerity and passion that described the new patriotism as American, Christian, and compassionate. In many places, including at Harvard, young Jews, Christians, and Muslims gathered together by instinct for prayer and encouragement.

While I do not know this, I cannot imagine that on Sunday afternoon, December 7th, 1941, many prayers were offered for our Japanese brothers and sisters. What I do know is that when The Reverend Charles Joy, minister of the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine, declared in a sermon preached just as we entered World War I, in April 1917: "If I remain your minister, prayers shall ascend for Germany and America alike," on the very next day he was burned in effigy on the iron railings in front of his church. (Down East: The Magazine of Maine; December 2001; P. 81)

Somehow, and often with little help from their elders, our young people, particularly in our schools, colleges, and universities, have begun to discover those truths that last in times of need. Unbeknownst to much of the profit-driven mavens of a corrosively materialistic popular culture which preys on the susceptibilities and anxieties of youth, these very same youth, shrewd critics of that culture and of those who run it, have been on a search for greatness, for goodness, and even for nobility, that "more excellent way" of which St. Paul speaks. They have been looking for that time, their time, in which to transform and be transformed. That time, I suggest, has now come, and the truths for making the most of that time will always expose the lies.

"But earnestly desire the higher gifts; and I will show you a still more excellent way." I Corinthians 12:31(RSV)

Peter J. Gomes
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and
Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church

Harvard University