November 11, 2009


By Jim Brown

Ten years ago, Tom Brokaw wrote a book about what he called “the greatest generation.”  And now, there is a new best seller out calling America today “the dumbest generation.”  And since Louisiana is at the bottom of the barrel on most comparative national lists, you can imagine how folks in the Bayou State are viewed.  But with all the tools of modern technology where we live in a digital culture with 24/7 information overload, and opportunities for intellectual development at an all time high, why aren’t we making a run at being ‘the greatest generation?”  What conditions existed 70 years ago that set those who fought World War Two apart?[ad#Google Adsense]

These questions were the focus of discussion last week in New Orleans at the opening of some new spectacular attractions, all part of the National World War II Museum.   The world premiere took place for an immersive, 4-D cinematic journey through this war, produced and narrated by actor Tom Hanks.  It’s a breathtaking experience and worth a special trip to New Orleans just to view the film.

Battle fields come alive with the viewer as a participant.  The movie screen wraps around the theatre so one is immersed in the action. When planes fly over, your seat shakes.  When it snows as the Germans invade Russia, snowflakes fall on you from the ceiling. New Orleans historian Dr. Stephen Ambrose, the best known chronicler of World War II who initially conceived of the museum, would have been proud. 

Tom Brokaw was in New Orleans for the grand opening and talked about his definition of “the greatest generation” in his bestselling book.  “They came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modern America – men and women whose everyday lives of duty, honor, achievement and courage gave us the world we have today.”

 Look, there is no doubt that these men and women of the 1940s were resourceful, hardworking and deeply committed to giving extraordinary service to their country.  But do we instill these same values today?  Or does today’s generation value lifestyle over success, who get trophies for showing up at soccer games, and who have been rewarded for little while being told they are ”special” too much?

In his new book, The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein has little hope for young people today.  Ignorant of politics and government, art and music, prose and poetry, The Dumbest Generation is content to turn up their iPods and tune out the realities of the adult world.  It is brash, pampered, dumb—and content to stay that way.

Bauerlein’s theories are being echoed by numerous talk radio shows nationwide.  Young people are incorrigible and it’s their way or the highway. They aren’t that well educated, they don’t vote, and they show little respect for values honed by hard work and sacrifice by previous hard working generations. The rest of us are old, redundant, can’t be trusted, and should be retired. 

But where is the leadership that was charged with instilling these traditional values?  Where is the call for sacrifice, volunteerism and “pitching in” for the higher good?  Sacrifice has become quaint in our modern times.  Self-sacrifice is so out-of-tune that we’ve turned President Kennedy’s famous line upside down.  A politician today saying those famous words could well get ridiculed:  “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

 In these times, many Americans consider altruistic self-sacrifice to be something only for suckers and losers.  A typical example is that even our “public servants” often leave office much richer than when they took office, or at least go on to a much higher paying job related to government in the private sector.  Kennedy’s words to many have been rewritten:  “Ask not what you can do for yourselves or your country, but what your country can do for you.”  Who can forget President Bush’s admonition after 9/11 that the best way to support our country was to “relax and go shopping.”

In a state like Louisiana that has so far to go just to land in the median of so many national lists, one would think that a major volunteer effort would be both productive and necessary.  Yet the state seems to almost go out if its way to build barriers to efforts by many citizens to pitch in.  A retired chemist from a Louisiana chemical plant who wants to volunteer to teach chemistry in public schools must spend a year getting a teaching certificate, at his or her own expense.  In my own personal experience, I have taught history at both Tulane and LSU, and served for 8 years as Secretary of State that oversees the state’s historical collections.  Yet, I’m not qualified to teach eight grade history in Louisiana public schools.

State treasurer John Kennedy recently proposed that every public official in the state spend a little time teaching in local classrooms – a good idea to inspire many young people.  When he proposed it to the newly created Commission to Streamline Government in Louisiana, his suggestion was summarily dismissed as unworkable and not practical.

Public officials in Louisiana, from the governor on down, are missing a great opportunity by not calling for more volunteer public service.  Teaching in classrooms, giving time to help in hospitals and daycare centers, volunteering so much time each week at the local food bank, a homeless shelter, Red Cross, animal shelters, teaching adult literacy, the list goes on and on.

And do you fly the flag?  No, not the LSU or Saints flag, or a flag for each season of the year – The American flag.  Do you have one up?  I fly mine 7 days a week at both my home and office. Do you?  Maybe all this sounds corny, but these listed efforts build the fiber of what makes up a “great generation.”   With due respect and admiration to my friend Tom Brokaw, I don’t believe any one generation can take credit for being “the greatest.”  Things happen.  History is recorded.  History gets interpreted.  Subsequent generations reinterpret it.

Louisiana and the nation are looking for leaders who will lead in calling for a major volunteer effort from citizens of all ages.  Government cannot do it alone. There are many who want to contribute and volunteer. They just need to be told how, where and when.  And that’s where real leadership comes in.  Inspiring and instilling a sense of commitment to public service.

At the dedication ceremonies in New Orleans last week, one special guest was a highly decorated
World War Two veteran named Corporal Carl Grassman.  He lives with his wife in Detroit and he works as a Wal-Mart greeter.  When told he would be honored at the museum and his travel expenses would be paid, he declined saying his fellow employees needed him too much and he would feel terrible if he left them for this one day to be so commemorated.  When the Wal-Mart brass heard this story, they flew Carl and his wife to New Orleans in the Wal-Mart private jet.

There are millions like Corporal Grossman who do their job each day and want to do even more to help their community, their state and their country.  They are just waiting for leaders to give them direction and set out a game plan of progress so that they too can lay claim to one of the “greatest generations.”


The Greatest Generation got to save old tires, dig a Victory Garden and forgo sugar. The Richest Generation is being asked to shop.
Margaret Carlson

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

 Jim Brown’s weekly column appears in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the south.  To read past columns going back to 2002, go to www.jimbrownla.com.


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