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Corn: American society no longer invests in young people

POSTED: November 29, 2010 12:30 a.m.

When two of my great uncles returned from World War II, they came home to a Forsyth County very different from that of today. It was a poor, but orderly farming community, where aside from a few professionals, most residents had little schooling. Yet despite the hardships faced by many families in the area, there was real opportunity to be had for a young man on the make.

The postwar generation of brothers on both sides of our family eventually accumulated ownership stakes in the printing business, the furniture business, chicken farming, chicken feed, hatcheries, propane distribution, real estate and banking.

How times have changed. The newest generation of the same clan is much better schooled and trained for employment, but not one I know has real ownership in his affairs. Big business has gobbled up nearly all of the sectors mentioned above, and corporate boardrooms reserve membership for a righteous elect, relegating the rest to work for wages.

This is not to say we are financially worse off than our forefathers. We are not. Nevertheless, exclusion from ownership is a form of disenfranchisement.

Some will blame our latest crop as a failed generation, but it is an ancient truth that every generation contains good raw material. The burden is on the whole of society give it form and guide its energy and vigor toward productive ends. Woe to the elders who stifle and burden their young ones, for they will likely see the end of what they have so proudly created and refined.

Yet, that is where we find ourselves today. Youth employment over the past summer was only at 48 percent, the lowest ever recorded. To add further weight to the load of the young, we have saddled them with the financial obligation to fund an out-of-control welfare state and its programs of Medicare and Social Security, programs they must pay for but will never benefit from.

By contrast, the government of the 1940s, '50s and '60s made essential investments in the area's public schools and infrastructure, which brought better access to markets and jobs for all. Government of that time did not burden the young but enabled them.

Today's beneficiaries of the state are far older for the most part. In fact, this age group has never received a greater portion of the national wealth, yet it has never been so angry. Polls indicate that 75 percent of the furious tea party members are more than 45 years old.

These parties in Georgia are a collection of forces on the extreme right. They sell simple solutions to complex problems, yet have been taken up by journalists because of their novelty, a break from the boredom of courting the two major parties and the masters they serve.

These fringe groups advocate schemes like constitutional fundamentalism to tame the federal leviathan, as if changing laws could contain its expansion and that of the commercial interests that control it. If one needs an example of such futility, he need look no further than the financial reform bill.

The Georgia tea parties are also full of neo-Confederates like Ray McBerry, who create elaborate fantasies about states' rights as a solution to the current power lock. These factions have fallen headlong for the cure-all of nullification. Yet, in the South this sort of legal language is historically associated with human slavery and apartheid. Bill Evelyn and McBerry may feel this is a minor obstacle to their ideas' greater currency, but the burden will be upon them to prove that their intentions regarding social order do not mirror those of their reactionary predecessors.

Never mind that the schemes of the fringe are unworkable, failed and half-baked, what renders them pathetic is their lack of support among young people.

Revolutions have generally not been undertaken by the old and today's tea parties are not likely to change that, no matter how much fear and hate they whip up.

Our best opportunity to renew public life will not come from the lunatic fringe, but from society's newest members. Yet this will only happen if we redirect our resources to prepare them.

A healthy way to start ought to include a clean break from the past and its worship of competition. Our civilization allows the full flowering of the individual, but this tradition is neglected when life is surrendered to business. In industry, the constant leveling of all costs, including human costs, is the only way for an entity to survive. Yet, when this ethos of the manufacturer is applied to the school, the playfield, the music hall and even the new employee, it stifles growth.

One may make the argument that we must prepare the young for the real world, but that can best be achieved by temporarily suspending them from the leveling forces of the industrial sphere and developing each individual's full range of talents and abilities. Rigor in the pursuit of individual excellence is fruitful because it leads to knowledge, mastery, and power.

By contrast, evaluation by ranking reveals little about individual achievement and devalues the work of all but the champion, discarding the rest. This treatment is fine for cheap wares on the factory floor, but has little utility in forming new members of society.

A nation that neglects its young people does so at its peril. For the young have every right not to be excluded by the powerful. When their voices are finally heard in the political sphere, they will flow with the greatest force. Better those voices carry songs of promise than yells for prey.

Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and a Forsyth County resident. His column appears occasionally and on gainesvilletimes.com.

 



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