Put things in perspective
Emily McConville | Thursday, November 20, 2014
The summer before my freshman year, a neighbor lent me a copy of the 1938 Dome yearbook. I spent a lunchtime looking at old pictures of the dining hall, the football team, the ads from long-gone South Bend businesses. I enjoyed looking at the idyllic representation of the University 75 years before I would set foot here.
When I got to the portrait section, though, I found myself smirking. Here was page after page of well-dressed, short-haired, clean-shaven young men. “Look at all these white middle-class Catholic boys,” scoffed white middle-class Catholic me. This place had a long way to go in 1938, and I was suddenly glad that I live in the 21st century. I felt very superior and important.
Then it dawned on me. It was the spring of 1938. Over in Europe, things were reaching a boiling point. In the coming year, Germany would invade Poland, and Europe would descend into war. The United States would remain nominally neutral for a couple of years, and then Pearl Harbor would jolt the country into overt action.
I imagined all those boys in helmets. The happy scenes of the 1938 Dome suddenly looked more like a lull before a storm.
Many of the soon-to-be Notre Dame graduates would enlist or be drafted in the coming years. They’d be soldiers or navigators or engineers. Current students would join them, and their alma mater itself would fight to stay afloat. Some would come back from war ready to take full advantage of their education. Others would not.
As disadvantaged as I would have been in 1938 and as “superior” as I feel now, I would not and probably will not have to experience the overpowering sense of duty that compels a person to enlist in the military, the loss of control that accompanies a draft notice, the climate of fear that gripped the U.S. during and after the war or the horrors of war itself. And in part, that’s thanks to the 1938 Notre Dame alumni.
Of course, the problems of different generations are not trade-offs: the 1938 Domers generally did not have to face genocidal dictators, racism, or sexism. Nor do I. They were perpetrators as well as victims of an unequal and unjust society. As am I. They were lucky in some ways and unlucky in others. So am I.
As the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack approaches, though, I try to remind myself that every generation and every group of people has its problems, challenges and responsibilities. The lesson, then, is pretty standard and unremarkable: understand history, people, privilege and perspective. Don’t judge based on appearance, be aware of difficult situations, try to right wrongs and correct injustices wherever they are found. And be thankful that in this generation, in this particular moment, we don’t have to do so against the backdrop of a world war.