You appear confident, but are unsure. You appear angry, but are afraid. You appear righteous, but are morally adrift. You are a college student, and showing confidence, anger, and righteousness is part of coming of age. This is not a period of exploration, as the authorities in your life euphemistically say. It is a time of rebellion. At its best, rebellion is liberating; at its worst, it crushes the soul.
Rebellion seems like an utterly personal act of self-expression. It is not. It takes forms that are given by the world. Its means, its targets, and its styles circulate around us, shaping words and actions of those whose time it is to rebel. When we are twenty, we believe our rebellion is our own; when we are forty, we lament that youthful self-deception.
One form rebellion takes today at campuses across the nation is the call for racial justice. At Princeton, my own alma mater, students have made four demands. They have called for the university to renounce its former president, Woodrow Wilson; for faculty and staff to respect the concerns of minority students; for the creation of race-specific housing options on campus; and for all undergraduate students to complete a class on minority cultures. When these demands were not met, students occupied the university president’s office for thirty-two hours until an agreement was reached.
I once stood in the same place. I printed fliers, chanted slogans, spoke at rallies in front of Nassau Hall, and entered its eighteenth-century doors to present demands to the president. I suffered from self-deception, but I also participated in something beautiful. I want to invite you to look for that beauty, a beauty that pulls you beyond yourself.
The rebel sees that the ways of the world are arbitrary, that they could be otherwise, and that the world nonetheless sanctifies these ways with oughts. It says that we ought to dress in these ways, talk in these ways, worry in these ways, aspire in these ways, analyze in these ways. We are tempted to confuse the ways of the world with the ways of God, the arbitrary with the absolute. You are right to challenge those older than you to remember this.
What worries me is not the instinct to rebel, but what follows so quickly: the domestication of this instinct, the turn from rebellion that directs you beyond the world to rebellion that directs you back to yourself.