Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Teach Your Children Well

Before he left for college, I tried to buy Nick a new pair of shoes. Nothing fancy, just some leather loafers to wear when his ratty running shoes didn’t seem appropriate (which, as near as I can tell, is rarely). He said he didn’t need any. Then I tried to buy him hiking boots to wear in the Michigan snow and slush. Same answer.

When pressed, though, it turned out he wasn’t making a bohemian fashion statement: he’s a vegetarian and he doesn’t want to wear leather any more than he wants to eat hamburger. Ah, I see. Honestly, I’m so used to the way things are that that never even occurred to me.

We found some synthetic hiking boots and he took an old pair of dressy-enough shoes that we already owned (so he wasn’t adding to the problem by buying new ones), but the experience got me thinking. How much should any of us be willing to give up to stand up for what we believe in?

Flash forward to Monday’s New York Times. Page two, where the quote of the day is laid out next to baubles from Chanel and Tiffany. Here’s the quote:

“Please—do something! We don’t want to die of hunger and also we want to send our children to school. I give glory to God that I am still alive—but I would like to stay that way.” (From a front-page story on a Haitian tent city.)

Here’s the bauble:

“Coco Platform” tweed bootie, $1,275, from Chanel. (A tweed bootie is a shoe, in case you’re wondering, not BeyoncĂ© or J Lo at a Highland Fling.)

It’s enough to make you nuts, isn’t it?

I’d be a communist if I thought that would work. Nick and I used to debate the limits of socialism--the crossover point at which welfare for all drags down the economy for all. I don’t know where it is. Somewhere between the U.S and France, I would guess. Nick thinks the Scandinavian countries are a good mix of GDP and social welfare, and he’s right, but they are small and homogeneous societies where people are comfortable making the social covenant to look after one another. What they have doesn’t seem to scale up very well.

For some, the world is a better place than when we were born. For many more, however, it is not. Never mind the odd hurricane or earthquake, just wait for the broader effects of global warming, which may not be as far off as we would like to think. We won’t be able to click the heels of our ruby slippers to leave those drought-stricken plains.

At some point, each generation realizes that it is going to have to leave it to the next to figure things out. I used to ask my grandfather if he didn’t want me to bring in someone to paint the house or update the kitchen. He always said, “We’ll leave that to the next occupant.”

And so we are.

The trouble is, the next occupants won’t be nameless people we don’t care about, they will be our children. Maybe they’ll be able to deal with some of the seemingly intractable problems like ruthless economic stratification--diamonds on the soles of our shoes. Maybe Nick’s technology can help. Or the economics his brother Chris is studying. Perhaps my older son Grant, a private equity investor, will back the next Norman Borlaug.

I have faith in our children, yours and mine. They are smart and energetic and idealistic. I wonder, though, why we are leaving them such tough problems to solve. And I wonder whether, in our time with them, when they are young, while they believe what we tell them, we are giving them a better moral lens through which to search for solutions.

McCord Clayton


  1. Beautiful essay, Mac.

    I remember my father, in 1971, asking my 3 siblings and me how we thought our generation would handle all the difficulties of the world we'd inherited. I will never forget that moment, because until then, I'd been pretty comfortable pointing fingers at the older generation and on, back into time. I had no answer for him -- I didn't think of my generation as a "generation," who would become old! I didn't think of us as grown-ups who would have to work to make the world better. That moment of my father's question will always stay with me, and I wish I could feel more sanguine about my own answers.

  2. Beautiful comment, Harriet. To a beautiful essay.

  3. Such an endless cycle. Some times taking a long perspective helps me. The abolition of slavery, the fact that I can vote and my grandma couldn't, the choices more and more people have as they move from farming socities into industrial societies. My father, a scientist and philosopher, managed to be an optimistic when I would question him...even as he railed against the government in Marxist tirades. It's very hard to see history from our place in it, don't you think?

    Don't worry about your son, or the next generation, too much. He will find a way, and he will help others along that way.