The new Princetonians -Self-discipline Yes, Emotions No – Beppe Severgnini -Corriere della Sera -27 novembre 2003

It was when I found out they didn’t call it "sex" any more, but "friendship with benefits," that I decided to get worried. Not about me. About them. The kids at Princeton are bright, smart, mature and organized. Perhaps too organized. They don’t deny emotions, they just stack them away in a neat little box labeled "emotions." There are other boxes for drinking or sport. Everything, except politics, which over here seems to interest no one, has its own little box. Before my talk, an undergrad showed me round the campus, a sort of North American Hogwarts for budding Harry Potters and Hermiones. I said to her, "I’ve read that friends who want to chat fix appointments at seven in the morning." She looked at me, "Well, what’s wrong with that?"
Do you see why Princeton is interesting? It’s a laboratory for the America to come. Not the only lab, but one of the most intriguing. Students here have survived fierce selection – only one application in ten is accepted – and spend serious money (15,225 dollars a year per household, although one in two gets financial help). University is considered an investment, and people behave accordingly. In 2003, Princeton was voted America’s Best College for the fifth time in six years, equal first with Harvard. The title is awarded by U.S. News World Report, which publishes a detailed survey every autumn. Many people dispute these ratings, but everybody reads them. In America, knowing who’s at number one is an obsession that’s too much fun to give up.
So what are the 6,500 young people who study in this New Jersey haven, a couple of hours’ drive from New York, actually like? It’s not serious to make judgments after a single visit. But you can muster impressions, conversations, and what you have read. For example, an excellent article by David Brooks for The Atlantic Monthly, entitled "The Organization Kid." Brooks describes a new class of "professional students" who are prudential, rather than poetic, indifferent to intellectual discussions outside lesson time, and disinclined to argue, whether in a work group or over politics. "It’s unusual for a student to protest a professor," one faculty member said to me, her voice tinged with disappointment. Oddly enough, I heard the same comment at Milan’s Bocconi University.
The Generation X of the 1970s was as restive as this newer and much more numerous group, born during the demographic boom of the 1980s, is relaxed. "Generation Y" is "hardworking, cheerful, earnest, and deferential," Atlantic Monthly goes on. Having left Nikes and Levis behind, it sports Old Navy or Abercrombie Fitch through its 20s, calling for "more respect for authority and more discipline." "The look is vaguely retro – upbeat 1962 pre-assassination innocence," writes Brooks. The picture painted is of incredibly wholesome youngsters whose task is to correct the narcissism and nihilism of their 50-something Boomer parents.
It could be objected that this is Princeton, the preppiest of all Ivy League schools. We’re talking about 6,500 young people who soar above America in a balloon inflated with money and talent. I would reply that this is true, but that balloon is also the incubator of the future governing class. And in the United States, the governing class – whether we like it or not – actually governs, it doesn’t just go with the flow. Today’s rulers believe in America’s exceptionalism, which looks more and more like "a fact and a destiny," as John Parker notes in the survey that the Economist dedicates to America. What will tomorrow’s governing class believe in?
It’s important to know. America may not know where it’s going, but it’s putting the pedal to the metal to get there. And one day, behind America’s driving wheel will be these young people, currently studying in the white light of the Firestone Library, or playing with the squirrels, instead of locking themselves away in their room with a consenting classmate. If you had savored the atmosphere of Georgetown or Harvard in the 1960s, you might have been able to predict a Bill Clinton or an Al Gore. What can you look forward to as you sniff today’s breeze at Princeton? One thing’s for certain. America’s history will not end with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. It’s much more interesting than that.

English translation by Giles Watson

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