Gen Jones at the Bridge

Reading and thinking about Generation Jones today, I gained more insight into my own feelings toward MAGA on the one hand and Bezos et al. on the other.

Forgive the thumbnail timeline and capsule definitions, but Gen Jones came on the tail end of Boomers and as heralds of Gen-X.

We began life in starry-eyed belief that we could grow up to be anything, even President! The hellish Vietnam war cast that innocent positivity under the terrifying shadow of the draft; Watergate told us President wasn’t such a lofty goal; and a dying economy from the Energy Crisis made us cynical about Boomers’ promise of prosperity.

MAGA is to me a Boomer view of “Better Days,” when they flourished in privilege handed them by the Greatest Generation’s bloody sacrifice. Of COURSE that’s where they want to be again. And I’m happy to let them revisit it in senile dreams.

[Sorry. The phrasing of that paragraph was Gen Jones bitter cynicism from crushed hope speaking.]

“Even President!” we were taught, and it was our answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” the question itself being another piece of Boomer bullshit. Only post-2000 have I realized that the correct answer to that question is, “I want to be me. And I want to be part of something bigger than me.”

Because Gen Jonesers were taught to succeed or fail alone. Alone. No looking at other students’ tests; no letting other students look at ours. School was a factory: Stand in line, listen for the bell, put in your 40 minutes in the math class then the social studies class then the science class, & etc. It was a factory with kindergartners pushed in one end and diplomas/jobs handed out at the other.

It was a factory of teaching facts, skills, and biases to the middle, with children at both ends pinched by the gears. Those who learned too quickly grew bored and were castigated as inattentive. Those who struggled to keep up grew surly and were castigated as inattentive.

School made widgets. Widgets were slotted into the machinery of a society. If that early question had been honest, it would have been, “What *widget* do you want to be when you grow up?”

Sure, there were A’s for exceptionalism. The exceptionalism of the individual. The feeling of being better than the rest. And this is where the Bezoses of the world come in: The “I deserve insane wealth because I’m insanely better than others” people. The “Others are ‘Human Resources’ to individuals of my stature.”

[And now that you and I have grown used to the term “Human Resources,” it’s morphing to the more forthright term, “Human Capital.”]

I mentioned a post-2000 realization.

[It came pretty much right after the Bezoses of humankind brought the worldwide economy crashing down and stuck the rest of us with the bill for their junk bonds. I’ve put this comment in brackets as a bitterly cynical aside. Because what I write next is hopeful.]

Working in educational publishing at the time, I was confronted with a new approach called “Project Based Learning.” Give students a project that involves more than just one subject, and put them in teams to make it happen.

[Not the abstract “If a train leaves point A at 60 mph, and Jimmy has 2 apples . . . ” answered as individuals on a standardized test.]

Give a project to a team of students, and two wonderful things occur.

First, subjects are no longer discreet pieces without context. They’re a conceptual whole: “Build a bridge between these two desks, using the materials on the back table, with a budget of $10 to buy them. Make sure it can bear the weight of two bricks. Put together a written report of how you did it, what you learned, and present it to the class.”

Second, students discover that “team” means using each person’s strengths, accounting for one another’s weaknesses, and accomplishing something together. Not as the team-building warfare of sports. In project teams everyone shines; while everyone recognizes their need for the others; and together they’ve built something that didn’t exist before.

Within a team, students learn that some are good leaders, in that they inspire and organize. Others have a knack for engineering. Others can perceive how a plan does or does not fit in a budget, and offer alternatives. Others are best at perceiving the project as a whole and explaining it in writing. And some aren’t terrified to speak in public. (There’s also a value for graphic design in that presentation.)

When the project is complete, their joint work is put to the test by those bricks. If it stands, they celebrate together. Together. If it falls, they also watch it fall together, and they go back to the drawing board, with knowledge and experience they didn’t have before. And either way, I can guarantee that they’ll never again ride across a bridge without seeing it for the marvel of human engineering that it is.

I’m Gen Jones.

I was born in hope, and nearly buried in cynicism.

But I see this generation, and my hope is born again.

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