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Sustaining idealism

Every generation needs a legacy. A verse to contribute to human history.

The World War II generation probably had the century’s most clear-cut legacy. Theirs was a time of intense poverty followed by intense national exertion, when inspiring national leaders rose effortlessly to the forefront of American politics and when evil had a name and a face.

But in a time when evil has no face, and we search within ourselves for its source, clear-cut legacies are harder to come by. Our parents’ generation perhaps best demonstrates this point. The counter-culture movement was a shining star in our century, but why did it fade so quickly?

Maybe it was because there was no Hitler. In the 1960s flying in the face of evil pitted crusaders against their own government, friends, family and selves. It was an all-or-nothing game, and for the contingent that wasn’t willing to surrender house and home there was no going half-way. So after the decade of protests most of them buckled down, went to professional school and became moderate Democrats (or, gasp, even Republicans).

Our generation is in a similar situation. To be true idealists we end up crucifying ourselves. Our patterns of consumption, our academic priorities and even our conduct in personal relationships…. If the source of the problem is truly in all of us, how do we fight it? Do we try to completely renounce all the norms to which we’ve been socialized? Or do we recognize the futility of such an effort and accept the fact that we have been lucky enough to be born into relative privilege and conclude that there’s nothing we can do about it?

Do we forget ourselves, or retract wholly into ourselves?

This is a false dichotomy. To be sure, some people will devote every atom of their being to fighting injustice and inequality, and these people are heroes. But this population is so small that we have to allow for other options. Most of us need balance. We want to save the world from 9 to 5 and go home to caring communities to which we have developed strong ties. We want to be able to provide adequately for our families. We want a sense of security.

The crux is that we throw in the towel on idealism the moment we think we’ve “compromised.” While we waste time feeling overwhelmed by the world’s problems and our inability to do anything, lives are lost and real human suffering is the ultimate outcome.

Sustainable idealism has to be our legacy. And it could be a truly great one.

Take service learning. When I arrived at Duke, I was its biggest skeptic. My first objection was that it detracts from valuable class time. Given that an abysmally low number of students emerge from Duke having read the seminal texts of Western thought, I found it difficult to justify spending class time discussing tutoring experiences. My second objection was that I didn’t see it making much of a difference in Durham. The students who are passionate enough to impact the community will do so anyway, so why make it an academic issue?

But I missed the underlying point. Service learning teaches all students that they are being educated for a reason. We learn from a collective body of knowledge so grand, humbling and immense that it requires a community of thinkers to produce; to absorb that knowledge and not understand what it means to be part of a community is an inherent contradiction.

We desperately need civic-minded graduates, no matter what their field. Institutionalizing idealism through service learning and other mechanisms trains us to think of ways in which we can contribute to and enhance our community, be it local or global, in whatever niche we find ourselves.

I attended Duke on a scholarship endowed by a man who made his fortune in investment and saw a need for more community service and cross-cultural understanding. You don’t have to join the Peace Corps to be an idealist. It’s possible that you may do more to change the world if you stay out of the non-profit sector altogether. You don’t have to be a Republican, and you don’t have to be a Democrat. The problems our world is facing have a claim on everyone’s morality, regardless of profession or political party.

Change the world in whatever way you can. But find a way, even if it seems inconsequential. Sustainable idealism might be an unromantic legacy, but this is an issue in which outcome outweighs style.

Jen Hasvold is a Trinity senior and former City & State Editor for The Chronicle. She would like to thank Julian and Josie Robertson for their generous support.

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