Fortieth reunion: Taking stock

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I graduated from college in 1967. My Fortieth reunion is coming up this fall. I am not going. The list of classmates already signed up to attend doesn’t reveal the attendance of many close friends from those days and I feel estranged from my college in general as it has become ever more wealthy and triumphantly elitist.

We were the first Baby Boomer graduating class, having been born, most of us that is, in 1945. So our lives and careers have lead the way for the success or failure of our generation.

In preparation for the reunion I was sent the Fortieth Anniversary Report in which I and my classmates had written for each other little free style personal essays assessing our lives to date.

In flipping through the 564 page volume with its crimson red cover, I first noticed about 1/3 of the way through that most of those classmates with whom I had hung out, had liked or admired had not sent in any commentary to be published in the reunion report. Just their names and address, maybe a phone number and email and name of spouse. No comments; no real presence of themselves.

I turned in the chair and told my wife: “There is a funny pattern here. Wonder why these guys didn’t send anything in when so many others did.”

And, on the other side, long personal statements, recaps of a career and life, had been contributed by classmates whom I could not remember – thoughts, observations, petit histories – to be memorialized for future Harvard class historians. The commentaries provide some evidence that one has been here, passing through. I had sent one in by the way.

Once again I felt on the “outs” – not really part of the rugby scrum, arms entangled, with all heads down trying desperately to get control of the ball.

Those whom I had hung around with or remembered had not been passive on-lookers in our time on campus. Far from it. I like to think that we were at the center of many things – not sports, not the preppy life style, but in intellectual pursuits, the Civil Rights movement, politics, theatre, journalism, good, hot discussions with professors, tutors and each other. This was a group that followed the news, read interesting stuff, was witty and insightful. We had been engaged with our times.

And now so many are silent. What happened?

Partially it was the Vietnam War I think. Looking over the self-disclosures in the report, guy after guy had his career directed by a desire to avoid service in Vietnam. In 1968 almost all my classmates (it was an all male college then with a sister school at Radcliffe for women though now we are all in one class report) went into positions that were draft avoiding – mostly to graduate school. My class now seems top-heavy with white-collar degreed professionals who have done well mostly in their fields but who have made no compelling mark for greatness.

I think less than 25 out of a class of over 1,000 men went to Vietnam. I was one of the few who did. My classmates were Bill Clintons and Dick Cheneys during that phase of American history. When their country called, they had better things to do.

Others were left to run the risks of combat – and to bear the opprobrium of defeat.

As Boomers, sacrifice was not high on our list of personal priorities. Absorption with self took pride of place.

As I put down the report, I quietly asked myself: What does it all mean? What did we accomplish? What did Harvard accomplish for the country and the world through us? What was the point of all that institutional power and elite prestige? Can we be proud of who we are?

Pride was not a theme in the report. Nor was service. Nor were any of the “old” virtues of our parents in the Greatest Generation or of our grandparents.

Getting through, doing one’s own thing, hunkering down, seemed to have been more prevalent concerns for my classmates over the past forty years – for the men from Harvard and the women from Radcliffe.

Our degrees put gold stars on our foreheads and could have opened many doors. What use did we make of those opportunities?

Some of my classmates came into a lot of money and shared part of it with Harvard. Our class gift this reunion year I think is over $11 million dollars.

I suspect from all this that Boomers are not such a great contribution to the common good.