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Columns

Rosenbloom ’13: Our extraordinary level of freedom

By
Opinions Columnist
Monday, October 31, 2011

For college students in 2011, it is easy to become discouraged about our future prospects. We will be entering a bleak job market, there is no guarantee that our material well-being will be better than that of our parents and very few people trust our institutions and leaders to solve our most pressing problems. Despite these worrisome trends, we should in fact be profoundly grateful for our opportunity to be college students in the 21st century. It is tempting to convince ourselves that we face uniquely difficult challenges, but in reality, we are the most fortunate generation of young people in American history.

We have far more personal choice in defining our careers, our identities and our obligations than did any previous group of young people. Perhaps our parents had greater economic certainty than we currently have. But on a more meaningful measure — that of personal freedom in shaping our lives — we are in a far more advantageous position than our parents.

American society demands far less of young adults than it used to, allowing us more freedom to construct meaning in our own lives. The most obvious example of the change in demands on young Americans is the abolition of the draft. Young adults used to be asked to sacrifice their formative years to combat. Even in the years without a draft, young Americans still had to live with the very real fear that an international crisis could force them into national service.

We face no similar demands and have full freedom to explore our individual identities, beliefs and career paths. Instead of being forced to make life-threatening sacrifices for the good of the country, we are encouraged to focus only on personal fulfillment.

Put more bluntly, our worries seem petty when compared to the concerns of previous generations of college-aged adults. My dad, like so many other college students of the late 1960s, did not have complete freedom to focus on his own personal development, free from societal expectations of service. As a draft-eligible male, he faced a less-than-ideal choice — either serve in an unjust and dangerous war or use deception to dodge the draft.

The nation put intense pressure on my father and his entire generation, asking them to risk their lives and carry intense moral burdens. Many Vietnam-era college students live with either the knowledge that they served in an unjust war or the misgivings associated with dodging the draft. Far from having the unfettered freedom that we have to pursue any life path, the external force of the American political system intervened to force them to make personal sacrifices.

In comparison, the American nation asks almost nothing of our generation of college students. We get to spend our formative years studying, partying and investigating potential career interests. Instead of imposing onerous burdens on us, American society actively supports this lifestyle of complete personal freedom and individual exploration by encouraging college attendance.

We should all be grateful for the obvious truth that we get to spend time in college instead of in a war zone — or living with the fear that our college career will be disrupted by military service. Yet there are also less obvious ways in which we enjoy unprecedented freedom.

The concepts of civic duty and national service are no longer as burdensome and restrictive of personal liberty as they used to be. Politicians, community leaders and the media still tell us that there is value in serving others. But this call to service is normally made in the context of personal fulfillment, not selfless sacrifice.

While we are encouraged to help society, we are told that we can find personally rewarding ways to do this. There is no demand for us to make personal sacrifices and selfless decisions. Instead, we are told to pursue our passions and find a way to incorporate service to others into these individual pursuits.

For example, in his State of the Union address, President Obama encouraged young people to serve their country by becoming teachers. While choosing a career in teaching may entail an economic loss when compared to other careers, it still appeals to many people’s sense of personal fulfillment. And this sacrifice pales in comparison to the level of sacrifice that politicians and society in general used to demand of Americans.

Recognition of our unique level of personal freedom should not be confused with accusations of selfish or greedy behavior. In fact, the vast majority of Brown students freely choose to sacrifice time and energy to serve others. I am not condemning the moral behavior of our generation and elevating that of past generations. I am merely acknowledging the unprecedented level of freedom the current generation of college students enjoys.

Society no longer demands intense personal sacrifice from us. We have been given the opportunity to define our own conception of national service and incorporate it into our lives as we see fit. In order to handle this unprecedented level of freedom in a responsible manner, it is vital that we take time to express gratitude and acknowledge our fortunate position.

Oliver Rosenbloom ’13 is a history concentrator from Mill Valley, Calif. He can be contacted at oliver_rosenbloom@brown.edu.

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