For this year’s first-ever Nation Student Writing Contest we asked students to send us an original, unpublished 800-word essay telling us what issue defines their generation. We received more than 700 submissions from high school and college students in forty-one states. The entries arrived from north, south, east and west, from big public institutions and tiny liberal arts colleges, from rural high schools and penitentiary writing programs, from Indian reservations and large urban centers. Climate change and environmental catastrophe in general were among the most pervasive topics, but apathy, corporate capitalism run amok and issues confronting immigrant communities were often cited as well. We chose one winning essay–“Project Corpus Callosum” by Sarah Stillman of Yale University, printed below–and five finalists, which you can read at www.thenation.com/student. The winner receives a cash award of $1,000, and the finalists receive $100 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. –The Editors
I never expected to find the secret of my generation’s political salvation floating inside a clear glass jar of formaldehyde. Yet there it was, pickled and perched on a lectern before some 200 mesmerized Neuroscience 101 students: a corpus callosum that had been surgically removed from the brain of an epileptic patient. A bewildering network of almost 300 million interlacing nerve fibers, the corpus callosum is known for its role in connecting the “left brain” (the hemisphere of analytical, verbal and quantitative calculations) with the “right brain” (the hemisphere of intuitive, nonverbal and imaginative thought processes). As I listened to my professor describe the devastating effects of extracting the corpus callosum–for instance, one exasperated patient pulling up his pants with his left hand as he pulled them down with his right–it occurred to me that this might be the ideal metaphor to describe the split-brained status of my own activist generation.
On the one hand, young Americans today are angry, confused and acutely aware of our domestic and global state of emergency. As the Iraq debacle spirals out of control, the US Army desperately funnels millions into new advertising campaigns designed to lure disillusioned youth into its ranks. An unprecedented prison boom continues to lock some 100,000 of us (particularly young men of color) behind bars while the government slashes funding for educational scholarships and other alternatives to youthful incarceration. Those of us blessed with the good luck of making it to college, like me, will graduate with an average of $20,000 in loans to be repaid at the same time that real wages stagnate and healthcare costs soar.
On the other hand, despite this litany of social crises, student mobilizations seem to be the sole property of our French contemporaries, not to mention our parents, with their nostalgic reminiscences of ’68. Contrary to popular belief, apathy is not our generation’s major obstacle. Our left brains are working furiously to catalogue and explain innumerable injustices, while our right brains scream that we must respond creatively. Our real impediment, then, is that we are a generation with an atrophied corpus callosum, utterly confounded about how to bridge our intellectual realizations about social problems with our imaginative capacity to enact solutions.
Consider that many of us got our first taste of student activism in the mid-1990s, during the Golden Age of the Exposé. Back then, most Americans knew nothing of the WTO, the maquiladora, the School of the Americas or even the ozone layer. Our collective ignorance, though disheartening, smacked of opportunity. It provided young activists with a simple, three-step road map to productive social engagement: Uncover, educate and mobilize. Remember watching Kathie Lee Gifford weep saccharine tears on national TV upon the revelation that her Wal-Mart clothing line was made by child laborers in Honduras? Continuing a long tradition of muckraking, young rabble-rousers helped shine the public spotlight on all sorts of hidden injustices.
But the post-9/11 landscape changed all that. Now that the Bush Administration has seized its radicalism and thrown all apologies to the wind, most Americans are no longer surprised to hear that our government is busy with the dirty tasks of empire-building: Dropping bombs. Tapping phones. Drilling reserves. Building jails. What role does this unabashed approach to US hegemony leave for student activists who might once have grabbed a bullhorn and, in a moment of youthful courage or foolhardiness, shouted before a massive crowd of silent followers: “Wait a minute! The emperor has no clothes!”
As students of the post-9/11 generation trying to live up to the legacy of our parents’ radicalism, we face an emperor who is not only naked but is proudly tipping his cowboy hat in the direction of Abu Ghraib and smirking, “And don’t I look sexy?” Within a post-denial Administration, scandal refutation has been replaced by scandal saturation. The result mirrors a neurological phenomenon known as “impaired response habituation,” whereby the basal region of the brain makes it difficult for highly repetitive stimulus to penetrate our consciousness. Can you blame America’s youth movement for not knowing how to begin?
This, of course, is where our corpus callosum might come in handy. We must begin rebuilding the intricate connections between our collective left brain (where we house our analytical critique of twenty-first-century woes) and our collective right brain (where we harbor our dreams that another world is possible). Already, young people are building this cross-hemisphere bridge–performing guerrilla theater, conducting counter-recruiting workshops, creating community-policing initiatives, writing feminist blogs and building transnational ties with youth activists around the world. Before long, we will hit our stride with Project Corpus Callosum: a much-needed mission to restore the space within our collective conscience where our radical imaginations meet our commitment to everyday action.