I was teaching the day the airplanes hit the World Trade Center. It was the second meeting of “The Communist Manifesto for Seminarians,” a course for my fellow graduate students. By the time I got to class, both towers had collapsed. A few hours later, Building 7 came down as well. We dispensed with a planned discussion about what Marxists mean by “idealism” and “materialism” and talked instead about the meaning of this particular example of the “propaganda of the deed.”
We already sensed that, with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in the White House, the attacks would mean war. But like the rest of the world, we didn’t yet have the faintest idea how long that war would last. And 16 years on, we still don’t know.
A few years later, I found myself in front of 40 undergraduates on the first day of the first ethics course I would ever teach. You know how sometimes you have no idea what you’re going to say until the words are out of your mouth? That day, I opened my mouth and this came out: “I was so excited about this class that I couldn’t sleep last night.” Eighty horrified eyes stared back at me. “I guess it wasn’t like that for you,” I added, and felt the blush creep up my face. Most of them had the grace to laugh.
Thirteen years later, I still have trouble sleeping the night before a new semester begins. It’s not exactly stage fright, but knowing that I’ll only have a few chances to convince a new crop of students that they really do want to examine their deepest values—the things they care most about—and even talk about them in front of their peers.
In fact, most of them do care deeply and about important things, too, like how they should treat their friends, their parents, and their sexual and/or romantic partners. They care about their friends who drink and drug too much and appreciate the friends who get them home safe when they do the same. They care about economic inequality, especially when they’re trying to find a place they can afford to rent in this city of soaring prices, San Francisco, or when contemplating the massive debt most of them will be carrying for years, if not a lifetime, after they graduate.
Some of them regularly turn out to be Milton Friedman–style economic libertarians. Almost invariably, more are reflexively anti-capitalist. More than half of them are young people of color. They and the majority of their white peers care deeply about racism. They don’t think the police should shoot unarmed black men and they tend to believe that people of color face institutional barriers that white people never even see. Slavery, they know, was a terrible idea, but many of them are fuzzy about when it started in this country and how it ended.