Slouching Toward Bethlehem (While Walking Across Campus, Staring at Their Phones)

So for many months now I’ve watched (along with most other people) the rise of Donald Trump with a mixture of bafflement and dismay, contemplating the scary possibility that he could actually be Leader of the Free World (seems bizarre, yes) in one month. I’ve even noticed the squirming goblin of this horror wriggling into the novel I’ve been writing, though painted in broad strokes, for good reason—ultimately I think Trump will be tossed into the trash heap of history, and one doesn’t need to add the dregs. Still I’m reminded of the old ad campaign for David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly (1986): “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid.”

His “policies” have been laughable to ridiculous: build a two-thousand mile wall at the (mostly desert) border of the U.S. and Mexico, ban Muslims, reintroduce “stop-and-frisk” police tactics, big tax cuts for the wealthy—the list goes on and on. But he’s the Republican candidate for President: enough said.

Sometimes it seems it’s all my friends and colleagues have been talking about for months, with one big exception I discovered starting in September: college students. I’ve also found that somewhat baffling. All the adults I know (even the children) have been talking about the election—a turning point in history, no less, perhaps the election of the first woman president—but my college students have been noticeably quiet about it. True, it’s not my position to proselytize to them about the importance of voting for Hillary Clinton, though I have urged them to vote, and to vote for an smart, sane candidate. But after I noticed the lack of discussion in before-class chitchat among the students, I directly asked my classes why. The best explanation seemed to be along the lines of “We’re over it” and “They’re both equally bad candidates,” the second statement of which I totally disagree, but hey, it’s a common opinion. The “We’re over it” response is a repudiation of our campaign system itself, for being too long and drawn-out. And the students who voiced this had a valid point: after the drama of the primaries—and for many, the supporters of Bernie Sanders’s disappointment—they feel as if it’s now a slog toward Election Day, which is, to some extent, correct.

The one unifying activity in this last month? Staring at their screens. The most common image of a college student in 2016 should be Student X walking across campus, staring at his/her smartphone, or walking along talking to the air. The media is often filled with prognostications about Millennials, most of which I find rather dubious. And even though I’m experiencing this myself, I realize how arbitrary my classes are, as any sampling of the thousands of students that make up a large university such as Penn State (population of @ 42,000!). But still: It has me worried. I quoted a William Butler Yeats poem, “Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop,” in class the other day, and students looked at me as if I were being a bit loony. Yeats’s “slouching toward Bethlehem” line is so oft-quoted it’s a cliche that needs updating: Add the image of a person walking along, staring at a smartphone—right or wrong, that’s what October 2016 feels a bit like to me.

About williamjcobb

William J. Cobb is a novelist, essayist, and short fiction writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Mississippi Review, The Antioch Review, and many others. He’s the author of two novels—The Fire Eaters (W.W. Norton 1994) and Goodnight, Texas (Unbridled 2006)—and a book of stories, The White Tattoo (Ohio State UP 2002). He has reviewed books for the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Times. He lives in Pennsylvania and Colorado. He may be contacted at wjcobb@gmail.com.
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