Thursday, November 02, 2006

Young and smart and confident

I was at Boston College the other evening talking to students in the Honors Program. That is to say, I was talking to the fifty or so smartest students in a first-rate, highly competitive university.

The first thing that struck me was how gorgeous they were, guys and gals. I seem to remember that back in my day the smartest kids were pimply-faced geeks with mismatched clothes, shirttails hanging out, and glasses like the bottoms of Coke bottles. But maybe I'm just remembering my own pimply-faced self. Anyway, here was a room full of head-turning, heart-stopping lookers of both sexes. Was I really in the right place?

The second thing I noticed was that they looked bored out of their minds. They were more or less required to be there, to listen to some old guy they'd never heard of impart presumed words of wisdom, when they could have been back in their dorm rooms composing avant-garde music, or reaching Level 76 of some mind-bendingly obtuse computer game, or writing their generation's Bell Jar novel. What was I going to say to these bright young kids that would be remotely as interesting as simply scrolling through the random thoughts of the 300 friends on their Facebook pages?

I gave it my best shot. In following a theme often talked about here, I posed the conflict between the two greatest forces in the world today, science and religion, which is really a conflict between two ways of knowing, not a new conflict by any means, but one that is currently more fraught than at almost any other time in history, and I suggested that the disharmony was going to get worse before it gets better, and that each of them, individually, would have to negotiate the apparently irreconcilable demands of intellect and feeling, empiricism and faith.

That sounds somber, but I ladled it out with as much humor as I could muster, and got a few laughs, and some knowing smiles, and by the time I got to the end -- by reading a poetic rumination from one of my books that conveyed, in an oblique sort of way, my own solution to the problem I had posed -- my fifty auditors seemed rather more awake than asleep, and rewarded me with a few sharp questions. I figured I had gotten more from them than they got from me, namely I went away reminded of what it is like to be young and smart and confident, and to believe that there is no problem afflicting humankind which their young and smart and confident generation will not solve.

Thanks, BC honor students, for having me. With you guys on the case, maybe it will work out after all.