Grievance Versus Gratitude

Laura Hollis

By Laura Hollis

Published Nov. 12, 2015

This week we celebrated Veterans Day, and social media has been filled with stories, pictures and expressions of deep appreciation for those who have served their country. Our armed forces are the very embodiment of love, service and real diversity: men and women, of all races and ethnicities, who practice any number of religions (or none). We thank those who survived and remember those who did not.

Against this noble backdrop, we have also seen the Pageant of Petulant Children and their Tempest-in-a-Teapot Tantrums play out on college campuses, most notably and recently (but by no means exclusively) at the University of Missouri and Yale University.

Oh, the irony.

Young, free, healthy people, receiving an excellent education at some of the country's finest colleges and universities, are protesting, starving themselves, demanding the resignation of faculty and administrators, insisting upon "apologies" for perceived wrongs (to be written in terms that would make Pol Pot proud) and screaming at anyone who will listen that they don't think their places of learning are "safe spaces."

There are many places across the globe — and even in the United States — that are legitimately unsafe. Yale and the University of Missouri — or, for that matter, most college campuses — are not among them.

In Nigeria, hundreds of young women have been kidnapped and most of them have never been found. In Uganda, children (largely male) have been captured by Joseph Kony's army and forced to maim, rape and kill others — even family members — or face death themselves. In Eastern Europe, hundreds of thousands of young women have been lured by false advertisements of good jobs into sex slavery. Across Africa and the Middle East, women suffer not only slavery, but acid attacks. One-hundred-twenty-five million girls and women have endured female genital mutilation. In Burundi, Chad, Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen and Madagascar, vast swaths of the population are facing famine and starvation. North Korea imprisons in concentration camps multiple generations of family members of anyone accused of opposing the government or attempting to defect. China pressures women to abort babies in excess of the one (now two) permitted by the government. In the territory controlled by ISIS, people are driven from their homes, raped, burned alive, run over by tanks, drowned and beheaded. Right across our southern border in Mexico, thousands of women have been raped, mutilated, murdered or "disappeared."

By contrast, what threats do American college students face? "Triggering" words in class assignments, culturally insensitive Halloween costumes, epithets tossed from passing trucks, exclusion from fraternity parties and a poop swastika. (And the veracity of some of these allegations is in doubt.)

Something has gone terribly wrong. These students — and an embarrassingly large segment of the American population in general — have utterly lost their perspectives, if indeed they ever had any.

The famous motivational speaker Earl Nightingale often wrote that "an attitude of gratitude" was one of the primary ingredients for success in life. How different our national conversation would be — and how different the climate at our colleges and universities would be — if, rather than being indoctrinated to look under every iPhone or designer handbag for grievances, our young people were asked to answer one question:

What are you grateful for?

If asked, what could they say? Here are a few things:

They have roofs over their heads. They are clothed. Most have never known hunger.

They have access to excellent educations — if they choose to take advantage of it. And for many of them, that education is paid for in whole or in part by grants and scholarships.

Notwithstanding the relentless chant of racism/sexism/classism, they are surrounded, at any given time, by dozens, if not hundreds of people — teachers, social workers, friends, neighbors — who would move heaven and earth to help them succeed. And if they have made it to college, they had someone in their lives — a parent, family member, coach, teacher, mentor — who cared enough about them to encourage them to achieve.

They live in one of the freest, most egalitarian and most prosperous countries in the world, and this has benefitted them enormously. It is popular to whine about "income inequality" and point fingers at "the 1 percent." But college students should look a bit closer to home. Less than 7 percent of the world's population has a college degree. Of those that do, how many attended an Ivy League university or a flagship state research institution? A fraction of a percent. (In fact, the entire conversation about poverty in America, serious though it is, is skewed by the fact that the Americans with an income level at the bottom 5 percent are nevertheless wealthier than 68 percent of the rest of the world.)

They run an infinitesimally small risk of being kidnapped, sold into sexual slavery, imprisoned or murdered for their religion, their political party or their beliefs.

Young people from many — perhaps even most — other countries across the world would be deeply grateful to have the kinds of opportunities that some of our own students no longer appreciate.

There was a time when Americans — those long here, and those recently arrived — understood that what we have is rare and valuable, and felt profound gratitude for what we enjoy. Many of the veterans we have celebrated this week were proud to serve because they believed that this country and the principles it stands for, though not perfect, are worth fighting for.

Will we honor their sacrifice and preserve the country they fought and died to protect? Or throw it away like spoiled brats?

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Laura Hirschfeld Hollis is on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches courses in business law and entrepreneurship. She has received numerous awards for her teaching, research, community service and contributions to entrepreneurship education.