Interview with Professor David Schmitz

Alyssa Fairbanks

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The labels that have been assigned to current college-aged youth are endless, from the multitaskers and echo boomers, to the “Yes-We-Can” generation. The Pioneer sat down with Professor David Schmitz, the Robert Allen Skotheim Chair of History, to place a discussion of generational labels in its historical context. As a soon-to-be graduates, the question looms: What defines our generation? What momentous occasions have changed the way we understand our increasingly globalized world, and what causes will we champion in the future? Professor Schmitz offers his perspective and advice.

Credit: cade beck

Pio: Do you think that applying generational labels is even a useful historical tool?

Schmitz: Well, we use labels like this as ways to help us manage massive amounts of information and give it some coherence. Generations can be shaped by experiences that they have in common, be it Pearl Harbor or the Vietnam War or 9/11, but that doesn’t necessarily  mean that all people respond to that the same way. So I think when we talk about generations, it’s more useful to talk about things that might shape or give commonality, that all have to respond to . . . then search for the commonality that comes out of that. Certainly this is a generation that’s coming of age in an era focused on advances in technology, social media [and] cell phones. That information is so readily accessible, so people are having a different experience than the generation I was in. And that changes expectations, concepts about what should be available to one.

Pio: Looking at the youth activism that is often the defining characteristic of the 1960s, how is activism part of youth culture today?

Schmitz: I think you see concerns with issues of rights and access that are somewhat similar. That is, we live in a time now where the disparities of wealth, which we talk about through the concept of the 1% or Occupy Wall Street, are starting to gain traction and people’s attention. And what does that mean to have a society where people are dividing in that way? What’s the impact that we’re seeing on social policy? I think some of those concerns you can find parallels for in the 1960s, immigration being another example of rights as an issue.

Pio: How do you see youth activism being played out at Whitman?

Schmitz: There is certainly a culture of concern.  These can range from immigration rights and education to larger national issues. Environmentalism is an example of that type of concern. Injustices abroad, we see concerns about those, and those issues come up in a variety of ways. And we see the type of things students chose to study as a reflection of that. But when we say activism, do we see a lot of rallies and public displays of this, [people] trying to mobilize? With the ability to connect outside of here so instantaneously, some of the activism takes place electronically. This maybe mitigates some people feeling like they need to pull larger groups together in public ways here. I do think there is a sense, that is hard to pick up, but the trends are starting to show a renewed sense of idealism among students. There is less cynicism; they just think that these issues are solvable and doable.

Pio: You mentioned the need to make significant or structural change. Are there moments in history that can provide us an example of this?

Schmitz: I think that if you took sort of the nature of youth culture protest in the mid-1950s––challenges to conformity that makes you feel pretty good, but you don’t really change things––versus, say, challenging Jim Crow. Going to a rock and roll venue that was integrated was a step, but then you retreat back from that. But people took a more substantive effort to actually make change, so it’s not abnormal to show up at venues that are integrated. I think that would be a type of moment in the 1950s and early-1960s where that took hold.

Pio: What would be your advice as we leave college for finding purpose and direction for our generation?

Schmitz: When you’re going to take on new sorts of responsibilities and obligations, be they work or further schooling or family, how do you construct that world, your world, and how do you engage with the wider world? I think that first and foremost you build on what you’ve learned here, which is to be lifelong learners, thinkers [and] engaged people. And to understand that you [were] given something that is quite valuable, which was the opportunity to spend this time learning, thinking, developing. You find meaningful ways to use that in your community and larger society. If that becomes central to how you want to define the meaning in your life, you’ll find the ways without knowing what they are right now. +

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