My class of 1955 at Princeton University has launched a project which could unleash the pent up civic energies of many Americans in their fifties who the media called the “silent generation” of the Nineteen Fifties. At a news conference on December 13th, in Washington, D.C., a group of us announced the formation of the National Center for Civic Leadership, with offices in Princeton, New Jersey, to liberate the ‘suppressed crusades’ of the many talented members of our class and connect Princeton undergraduates with a wide variety of civic opportunities.
Following the decision last April to pioneer the creation of a full-time, operating institution to train future leaders and work on many of the serious problems affecting our society, our classmates have learned that they are not alone in their erupting need to make a fundamental difference to their country..
The nerve tapped in the Princeton class of 1955 is there to be tapped elsewhere. A generational stirring is rumbling among those who grew up in the Fifties when American was number one in just about everything and now find their land in deep trouble on almost all domestic fronts. With their children raised and some financial security achieved, more of them are looking outward at a country in trouble.
John Gardner, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, and author of the new book “On Leadership” (The Free Press) put the challenge aptly when he addressed a gathering at Wingspread (Racine, Wisconsin) of other members of the class of 1955 from a dozen colleges:
“You’re going to be saying something that is profoundly relevant to American life at this moment. This is an era of non-commitment. You will be saying that commitment matters. This is an era of self-preoccupation. You will be saying that self-absorption is not enough. This is an era of disintegrating values. You will be saying that we do have shared causes worthy of
. commitment, even sacrifice. You will be saying that shared effort to solve our problems is not a hopeless venture.”
The discussion at Wingspread was not about charity. It was about creating centers and citizen careers to take on problems that are systemic and expose them to systemic solutions. Charity can temporarily mitigate a bit of the widespread prevalence of poverty; it cannot diminish or end that deprivation. Charity can do little to combat the corruption that led to the $300 billion taxpayer bailout of the Savings and Loans or the wreckage resulting from the HUD scandals or the radioactive mess around nuclear weapons plants.
When you list the litany of social problems — health care costs and quality, failures in education , environmental toxics and global warming, housing, energy waste and others — charity cannot muster the power for change. Class members recognized this distinction in their preamble to the formation of Princeton Project 55, to wit:
“We believe that the interaction of our classmates and students in addressing public problems, in fundamental and systemic ways, would blend idealism, experience, commitment, and talent to the benefit of students, ourselves, and the larger community.”
The many 1955 class members who signed the resolution pledged to mobilize the talents, experience and energies of others of our generation “on specific public interest and civic action projects toward solving systemic social problems.”
I am impressed by the seriousness of my classmates. They are looking for results, not rhetoric. As former diplomat Charles Bray put it at the news conference, they know not in awe of either jargon, bureaucratic ploys or entrenched economic interests. Project 55’s president is Steve Boyd who left his position with a Washington law firm to work full time.
Our class president, Alan Willernsen, an insurance executive, has guided this effort with sensitivity and statesmanship. He observed that “we’re starting with our own classmates, but we know there are large numbers of contemporaries all over the country. who share our sentiments.”
There must be a deep appreciation for the gravity of this nation’s condition to bring together classmates from business, government, academia, medicine, law, and citizen action. Nostalgia for old Nassau and the Princeton Tiger didn’t bring us together in common action the way the failure of both leadership and civic confidence have done so.