[25 January 2012]
In the midst of the shouting and clattering that seems to be American politics, Tom Brokaw’s The Time of Our Lives: A Conversation about America provides a quiet sanity.
Not that The Time of Our Lives is all about politics or politicians, but Brokaw does dedicate some time to the subject. “Slashing rhetoric and outrageous characterizations have long been part of the American national political dialogue,” Brokaw notes in the first chapter, before commenting, “Personally, I’d like the partisan combatants on both sides of the aisle to explain their attitudes to a junior high civics class. Maybe their adolescent audience could teach them some manners and lessons in teamwork”.
Another comment: “In 2010, President Obama’s big educational initiative, Race to the Top, offered states a total of $4.35 billion in grants to change their education policies to make them more effective. That is less than what the Department of Defense spent in Iraq in June of the same year. Does that make sense to you?”
Education is clearly a priority with Brokaw as much of the first section focuses on this subject. He notes success stories and advocates the consolidation of colleges, the lengthening of the school year, and a greater emphasis on science. Of teaching, he states: “It is hard and noble work and, yes, it is not always done perfectly, but the failures of the system ought not to be blamed on the teachers alone. We all have a stake.”
Brokaw covers many topics in this book—politics, the economy, technology, immigration policies, public service, even grandparents. He contends:
“When the economy took a steep dive, so did the assumptions of baby boomers, now grandparents. Their home values plummeted, their retirement accounts dried up or were greatly reduced, and their expectations for the future took a dark turn… It has been, at best, a sobering experience and I do not meant to diminish its effects, but it can also be an instructive lesson to future generations. With our help, grandchildren can learn from our experience… we can impart the lessons of managing for the future and not just for instant gratification.”
Each chapter includes a past and a present section along with a promise section; most chapters include stories—a soldier with a traumatic brain injury, a family who sells their house and gives half the proceeds to charity, another family that is “caught in the pincers of the economic downturn”, and plenty of stories about Brokaw’s own family.
Most chapters also open with a textbox dedicated to facts and questions. Consider the first set of questions:
“A hundred years from now, what will be our indelible and measurable legacy? What will our grandchildren say of us? Of our country? Historians will not judge our time by Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or the Tea Party alone. We’re all in the dock.”
The questions don’t get any easier as the book progresses.
“Do you have a contingency plan if you lose your job?”
“If John F. Kennedy were around today and asked what you’d done for your country recently, how would you answer?”
“How much did you save last week?”
“Could you be just as happy in a smaller home?”
While individual responsibility is a main theme of the book, not all the questions are quite so personal. Brokaw also asks “When was the last time you heard a prominent public or private leader who failed personally or professionally candidly acknowledge the mistakes and pledge to make the lessons learned a central part of the remainder of his or her life?” (One answer: Tiger pitcher Armando Galarraga and umpire Jim Joyce after a bad call on Joyce’s part cost Galarraga a perfect game.) Another question: “What exactly does higher education mean in a modern global society and how should it be organized for the masses as well as for the intellectually and financially elite?”
Not all the questions are answered, and in fact, some questions can only be answered by the reader, and some questions (such as what does higher education mean) might need multiple volumes to answer thoroughly. But Brokaw does highlight success stories—for example Tom Cousins and his work with the East Lake Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia; and Eric Greitens, who helped form “The Mission Continues, a 501(c)(3) that places wounded vets in fourteen-week fellowship programs with charitable organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America”.
Brokaw also adds his own opinions and advice. When discussing the “new universe…with cyber-geniuses”, he reminds us of limits: “You cannot eliminate poverty or disease by hitting the delete key. You cannot reverse global warming by striking backspace… It will do us little good to wire the world if we short-circuit our souls.” And with lines like “I never want to hear a lyric that goes ‘A tweet is just a tweet—as time goes by’”, the passages where Brokaw shares his own thoughts are some of the most memorable.
Written in a quietly eloquent style, Brokaw’s book feels like a conversation, and unlike some of the “conversations” we see and hear on the 24-hour news stations or the debate floor, no one yells, no one rants, and no one interrupts. The questions may not be easy, the suggestions may not be the ones people want to hear, but very often the book contains a quiet wisdom and an honest voice that is a welcome respite from the din surrounding many other conversations about America.