They’re called the first baby boomers. They have been perceived as a simmering stew of radicals, socially liberal activists, hippies, and self-centered navel-gazers unable to trust anyone over 30 — and now they’re turning 60. Some accuse them of refusing to “act their age,” and, by their collective size and health, threatening to destroy Social Security and Medicare for all who follow.
Are any of these characterizations true?
Of course. Of course not.
Are members of CC’s class of 1968 still living out the values they espoused as CC students, or have time and age mellowed them? Have they changed in significant ways? Are they still making a difference? Have they made a muddle of it?
In a highly unscientific series of interviews that at times resembled a midnight rap session in a dorm, six members of the class of ’68 recently shared their thoughts on the transition of the “youth movement” to what historically has been the category of “senior citizen.” They are not a perfect representation of the cohort. But they do illustrate that the complexities, contradictions, and passions associated with the ’60s generation are alive and well.
“We believed we could change the world. We came of age when all was possible. There was boundless optimism, economic prosperity, and confidence. We had an idealism that good could triumph over evil, and problems could be fixed,” says attorney Bob Sears ’68.
Media educator Cindy Rosener Piller ’68 agrees: “Optimism about our personal lives is a hallmark of our generation.” Yet she takes a narrower view of the generation’s collective ambition: “I thought we could change parts of the world — and that could be important.” In contrast, organic farmer Wink Davis ’68 believes the large view was the generation’s defining value system. “‘People power’ meant something to us — civil rights, the women’s movement, gender discrimination issues. ‘Love and peace’ was about respecting others and wanting them to chart their own courses.”
Medical doctor Susan Schiele Beland ’68 thought of herself as rather conservative when she entered CC, but she changed with the times. “Vietnam turned everything around. It was right to protest,” she decided. Fred Beland ’69, whom she married after graduation, had a deep commitment to nonviolence; the two would have joined many who emigrated to Canada if religion Professor Joe Pickle’s letter to the draft board had not convinced its members of Fred’s legitimacy as a conscientious objector.
Acting on Convictions
Did all members of the class of ’68 protest, speak out, act on the convictions ascribed to the generation?
Rosener Piller reports, “I didn’t protest; I could see the grays of Vietnam. The antics of both sides troubled me, and it was only after 1968 that my opinions about the conflict evolved. I wanted to work through the system to make changes.” Businessman Bruce McCaw ’68 believes that many students worked to change the world as he did — through political campaigns rather than protest. McCaw, who worked for Washington state’s pro-education Governor Daniel Evans as well as Nelson Rockefeller’s last presidential bid, questions whether the “values of the 60s” were as monolithic as they appear in hindsight: Did everyone believe the same thing? Were all ’60s youth “anti-establishment?”
Photographer Dave Burnett ’68, who spent his college days chronicling CC life with his camera, has spent every day since bringing the world closer through his photos. He has perhaps seen a bit more of the wide world, its hope and tragedy, than most. His skepticism about the authenticity of the commitment to “the revolution” developed fairly early, as he watched some make an easy transition from revolution to the banal-if-profitable worlds they had previously decried.
Burnett says, “I became skeptical while a photojournalist in Vietnam. It quickly became clear that we couldn’t believe what we were being told. But I’m skeptical, not angry. I find a responsibility as a journalist to show, as truthfully as I am able, what is really happening — then and now.”
So was this generation really different? Sears points to change that occurred partly because ’60s youth forced the nation to pay attention to problems that could be fixed: civil rights, gender equality, the environment, the realization of human potential. In its zeal to address these problems, Sears says, the youth movement was idealistic, even naïve in some ways — thinking “we could just speak up and there would be a sudden transformation” — but committed to its causes. Although less naïve today, he says, “We are still engaged with the world, our communities, and one another, and some of the fights must continue to be fought. It wasn’t so sudden, but enormous changes have taken place.”
The baby boomers are widely described as optimists — in McCaw’s words, “We fundamentally see the bright side, the possibilities.” For Beland, optimism manifests itself in her commitment to primary care and her teaching of a future generation of doctors, and it seems to have intensified after 12 years as a cancer survivor.
And what did we get wrong? “I’m a bit disillusioned,” says Rosener Piller. “Based on the performance of the politicians of our generation, I’d say we blew it.” And Burnett asks, “Where are the great thinkers of our generation — the great leaders? We haven’t seen them so far.”
Sears, too, says he’s disillusioned by current political movements. “We are going through a period of reaction against the advances in individual liberties and social justice that were the hallmark of the 1960s and 1970s. But those advances are rooted in our traditions, and I am optimistic they will continue.”
McCaw, who jumped into politics right after his CC experience, believes that the way the ’60s generation tried to change the world — in particular, protesting not just the war but the troops — hurt American society. One of his passions is to ensure that younger generations understand the sense of deep commitment and discipline of earlier generations. He works with the Medal of Honor Society Board and the Museum of Flight in Seattle to help young people understand more about the reasons for earlier wars, the sacrifices, and the heroism of that time. “Clearly we lacked that understanding at the time,” he says. “We’ve learned now that regardless of our feelings about policy decisions around war, we should support those Americans who risk their lives for our freedom.”
Weighing in on the Future
What some call the “judgmental generation” does have something to say about the world today and to the generations that follow it. From self-described “open-minded skeptic” Burnett: “Where is the perspective? I worry about young journalists who want to become more important than the story, about leaders who think that the appropriate way to harness our righteous anger over terrorist attacks is to take off our shoes at the airport! We eat too much, collect too much, and haven’t helped the next generation feel less entitled to more of everything.”
Rosener Piller and Beland work in education, influencing the future in the most hands-on ways. McCaw’s Talaris Foundation supports research to improve society by better preparing our youngest children to learn. He is so committed to improving parents’ ability to make that happen that he helped lead the bipartisan effort that created a department of early learning in Washington state.
Davis, the organic farmer, criticizes a society that seems unwilling to recognize that we live in a world of limited resources and mushrooming population; he is doing his part to change that.
It is still about the future for the baby boomers, and this rap session illustrated how six ’68ers are still far less concerned about their own futures than that of the next generation and their communities and world. And — they still feel young enough to do something about it!
Susan Schiele Beland entered medical school at 35; she practices internal medicine and teaches at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. As a cancer survivor, she brings special insight to training new doctors to be patient-centered. Beland’s students have voted her outstanding teacher more than once.
Cindy Rosener Piller delayed her career while raising children, then developed a consulting business. She had to “rebuild her brain” after a serious car accident; in recent years, she has developed an award-winning program to bring newspapers into classrooms.
Bob Sears still lives a socially conscious life, involved in St. Louis issues. His avocation as a beekeeper, which he calls “ranching for intellectuals,” has led him to the artisanal food movement. Sears will spend his 60th birthday at the Terra Madre conference in Italy.
For Dave Burnett, an award-winning photojournalist, the shutter keeps clicking. “Photographers don’t retire,” he says. Burnett and his wife contribute frequently to their blog (which they term a “blob”), We’re Just Sayin’, at http://werejustsayin.blogspot.com/2006_06_01_werejustsayin_archive.html.
Wink Davis, having “launched” two daughters from CC, has moved to an organic farm in western Colorado. In concert with his lifelong commitment to sustainability, Davis shares his knowledge with CC environmental science students who intern at the farm, GreenColorado (www.greencolorado.com).
Bruce McCaw and his wife are raising three children who catalyzed their interest in early childhood learning; that led to the formation of the Talaris Foundation (http://talaris.org/) to support research on early learning and parenting. Its programs have been incorporated into education efforts of the Gates and Buffett foundations.
All photos courtesy of alumni (except one, as marked).