Looking to Generations of Knights for Better Days


“The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”   — Abraham Lincoln

There is reason to be hopeful about the future of our Republic, but a lot depends on a generation of Americans only just leaving school and getting a solid grip on life.

If you are a disciple of historians Neil Howe and the late William Strauss, as is my friend Jerry Climer, who tutors me on their theories of generational change, generations fresh from the classroom of the 21st Century, will have much to say about the next 30 years, a critical era in our future, and not unlike a time less than a century ago.

Strauss and Howe advanced the notion of history repeating itself to a new dimension. They did so in a sophisticated review of generational history dating back to the late 16th Century. 

They found that while each generation looks at the world differently, reacts to it differently and changes its course in unique ways, there are impressive similarities in behavior.

Strauss and Howe identified four basic and broad re-occurrences they called Turnings.

Vastly oversimplified, the First Turning is the High, a period of strong institutions and social order. The last First Turning was the 20 years of the post-World War II period. The Second is the Awakening, a period when institutions are being challenged, and individuals search for personal identity. The Third is the Unraveling during which institutions are weak and individualism strong. The Fourth is Crisis. You guessed it, a period of reassessment, when it is perceived that survival is threatened and disreputable institutions must be rebuilt and restored.

If society is to survive—some days a big if–there must be unity of purpose and a sense of civic engagement and collective strength and confidence, our past tells us.

According to the Strauss and Howe theory, we are now in the Fourth Turning.

This passage of the generations and the critical juncture we are at today as a society and a Republic, came to mind, oddly enough while I was browsing through the newsletter of O’Gorman High School, celebrating its 50th anniversary educating the Catholic families of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, mine among them.

In the latest edition of the Re-U-Knighter (the O’Gorman Knights, get it?), the cover featured the reunion of the hearty souls who were graduated from the old Cathedral High School, which O’Gorman replaced in 1963. They spanned two generations, part of the GI Generation (the one Tom Brokaw described as the Greatest Generation), and the Silent Generation, who grew up in Depression and World War and lived to tell about it.

Some have lived through all four Turnings. They have seen so much of what history and the human experience have to offer, from human triumphs like the flights to the Moon to human tragedies playing out in the slaughter and dislocation of millions in the Syrian civil war. They have written on manual typewriters and iPad screens. They have benefited from the Salk vaccine for polio, heart transplants, and robotic surgeries. They have watched the dissolution around them of the family and organized religion, but they can still recite the Latin responses to a High Mass.

Turn a page or two in the newsletter and there is the next generation, the Baby Boomers, 37 of them celebrating their 50th reunion of the Class of 1963. I looked for my sister, Carol, among them, but she wasn’t there; probably too busy with the home addition in Olathe, Kansas to make the trip north.

They too, those 37, have a wide window on the past. They have seen much and experienced much. They ushered in the Second Turning, the awakening, the unfortunate period when we thought us more important individually than collectively as a society and thought, too, we were cool enough to experiment in excesses, defy authority, and find value and enlightenment in destruction and devaluation. Some good did come of it–the flowering of the civil rights movement–but at considerable cost.

Then, what caught my attention was the reunion picture of the Class of 2003, taken the day after their BBQ at the Kappenman family farm. If I do my math correctly, it is the members of this class and those younger who are and will continue to drive the evolution of our society from the Fourth Turning to the First, again. They will, hopefully, guide us on the long journey back from a society divided to one united, from dysfunctional institutions to governing ones, from politicians who see nothing ahead but the next election to politicians who see more globally than parochially, from civic organizations struggling to survive to influential organs that thrive on volunteerism and a populace committed to community, and from people consumed by materialism to people defined by their spirituality.

If past is prologue, these future leaders are still feeling their way along, trying to get their arms around parenting, climbing the ladder of success two or thee rungs at a time instead of one, maybe drinking too much, and busy unraveling the mysteries of relationships at home and at work. They seem smart, though, tuned in more than tuned out, and hopefully, solidly well-grounded in proven values that will serve them well as bright lamp posts on the darkest corners of life.

The glossy newsletter photos span the ages from the GI and Silent Generations to the newly minted 2013 homecoming royals, Queen Rebekah Ridder and King Max Boyum, who represent an even younger generation that will share in the passage from crisis to high. It is quite a span when you think about it.

You have to wonder if all of the accumulated knowledge, experience, talent and energy of the generations represented on those pages could not be put to better use minimizing the mistakes we are destined to repeat and subduing the destructive tendencies we inevitably let out of control. Those mistakes and destructive impulses are the kind that have produced economic recessions and spawned military conflicts; they have sent us into a spiral of uncivil discourse and arrogant righteousness, and abandoned spirituality and fundamental core values like truth, honesty, and humility.

Looking at those photos and peering into the future, you have to wonder if we have to continually destroy our institutions and demean our beliefs in order to make them better or stronger? Is such repetitive pain so inherent in progress? Are we really making progress as a society, toward something better, or are we taking two steps back for every one forward, falling farther behind so slowly and incrementally we don’t notice or no longer care?

Maybe in the next round of reunions at hundreds of high schools and colleges around the country, the time would be right for the older fogies to sit down with the young at a lot of Kappenman farms and learn from each other in such a way that the Turnings become periods of greater triumph and less tragedy and Neil Howe has to start over with the whole idea that past is prologue.

We weren’t smart enough. Are they?

“Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it.”      —  John Adams

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.