You know that conversation in the cafeteria flows better when you mention a tweet by Katy Perry, not the morning’s Wall Street Journal book review. The trivial social-media culture of your classmates seems to drown out their interest in politics and times of prayer. In high school, your intellectual interests earned you more ridicule than respect. You live a new counter-culture without any of the libertine pleasures of the old counter-culture.
Some of you have written to me and some have spoken, expressing concern and dismay, requesting a way out of the hyper-social circuit and into the civic and ideological contests of our moment. You sense the juvenility of media habits. You realize that leadership requires different exposures. You're sick of selfies and tired of Twitter, because you draw a disconnection between what you observe in your friends, and what you think a nation needs from its rising generations. You want more and better, but everything in youth culture conspires against that escape, the media, marketing, games, and devices, combined with the desire not to be alone, yielding a coercive climate that urges, “Send more texts, get more tweets, make more calls, check Facebook, take and share pictures, chat, comment,” etc.
Here’s what I can tell you:
1. Remember that the norms of adolescence differ from the norms of adulthood.
The virtues that help you prosper in youth are not the same ones that help you in adulthood. A sophisticated vocabulary might estrange you from friends, who will scrunch up their faces when you use words such as ideology, malefactor, and abhorrent instead of stuff, jerk, and gross, but in a job interview and a university classroom, those words will impress others. If your peers laugh at you when you raise the diction, laugh with them . . . but keep it up.
The same goes for other behaviors and achievements. A cool new iPhone will leave friends envious, but it doesn’t matter much in the workplace. Building up a huge “friend count” might make you feel popular and comfortable, but your children won’t care, and it won’t help you care for them.
If you spend time playing video games and watching youth TV shows, you will have ready conversation with other 18-year-olds, but every minute doing so takes time away from following politics, visiting museums, and reading books, activities that make you a more engaged citizen and seasoned sensibility. Your friends might draw back when you suggest a Saturday afternoon at a historic site instead of a sports bar, but the first will plant knowledge and attitude that grown-ups respect, while the second will pass in a few hours and leave nothing but a dim memory of fun.
2. Subscribe to a newspaper, a print version delivered to your door.
Retrieve it each morning and read it over breakfast, a 15-20 minute ritual to open the day. You don’t have to pore over every story and editorial, and you can skip the sports and leisure pages, but if you take the time to check headlines and skim important pieces, you will gradually enter the civic conversation of your nation and your locality. You will find that you have more facts in your head and you will form opinions about them intelligently.
The content won’t bear upon your friends, it won’t provide fodder for banter with other 17-year-olds, and it will seem at first altogether strange and irrelevant, but it will connect you to something more important, the events and decisions and conditions that steer history. Three months of steady newspaper reading will change you for the better, giving you confidence among strangers because you know what is going on in the world.
3. Share high art with others.
ISI members already see that the art and entertainment of youth culture appeal to puerile tastes. Movies, TV shows, Web sites, and music popular with the young are easy to understand, emotionally simplistic, and morally coarse, but most youths like it. So, take on the mission of elevating their taste. When you are working or playing and desire background music, select some 19th-century opera or classic jazz instead of pop tunes. Rather than taking a date to a movie on Saturday night, go to a museum on Saturday afternoon. Ask peers to join you at a live theater performance, not a sports bar. In college, expose your roommate to films by Orson Welles and Robert Bresson, not another superhero entry.
The material may seem, at first, boring or odd them, but you will explain that the have to listen to Lohengrin and John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” 20 times before they can begin to hear it. Taste takes time to develop, you will tell them, but after a program of exposure they will become more interesting human beings.
4. Keep reading books and begin a log.
Every time you finish a book, write it down in your intellectual diary, noting title and date and copying out the best quotations in it. The record will grow as the years pass, and it shall form a biographia literaria that you shall look back upon 30 years later as a chronicle of your formation. They could be books for school or for leisure, so long as they have a shaping influence or provoke a judgment. Start it now, while you are in school and on vacation, when you have no children and don’t go to work nine-to-five Monday-thru-Friday.
These are the best years of intellectual formation, when you can build an inner reservoir of facts, concepts, arguments, and terminology, powerful images and beautiful sounds. Call it homework for a life of the mind. By age 30, it should contain classics of literature, history, science, and philosophy, plus the influential “public” books or our age from The Road to Serfdom to The End of History and the Last Man to Rodney Stark’s How the West Won. You will enter the day’s controversies ten and twenty years from now better armed than your opponents (and allies, too). When someone refers to “Leftist politics,” you will not only get the present reference. You will also have a tradition in your head running from Marx to the Progressive Age to the New Deal to Herbert Marcuse, plus critiques of it from Russell Kirk to Robert Bork.
Follow these steps and you will exit adolescence. An agenda of books, high art, and grown-up values will not only increase your knowledge and bolster your citizenship. It will strengthen your will. You will stand up more confidently for what is true and just, resist more effectively the flows of youth culture and consumer society.
I can’t guarantee that you will be a happier person, but you will certainly have the tools to become a wiser, more virtuous and discriminating one, and you will fulfill the old and unforgiving injunction, “the moral obligation to be intelligent.”