“You are who you are where you were when”
First coined by sociologist Morris Massey in the 1970s, this tongue-twister depicts the sentiment that values of our past directly motivate how we behave.
A boy who grew up during the Depression to a widowed mother found himself working the ranches of Nebraska at fifteen year old. Pawned off to relatives for the summer, he herded cattle in exchange for room and board. This same boy grew up to put himself through college, and law school, which was cut short by being drafted into World War II. As a young man he fought for his country and was shot in Italy, on the beaches of Anzio. He returned home with a purple heart but in true style of the stoicism learned as child of the Great Depression, never talked about the bullet in his shoulder. This man eventually married my grandmother, had my aunt, and then my father. It being his duty to provide the stability and security he never had growing up, my grandfather chose civil servant as a career. A job where he languished from boredom but comfortably provided for his son.
His son, in typical baby-boomer fashion, had no fear of poverty but certainly did of atomic bombs. My father, who followed in his father’s footsteps only insofar as to also be a solider sent to Europe. Stationed in West Germany, he was a welcome guest of the country my grandfather had fought against. While there, he met my mother (a fellow solider), married her, and eventually had me. A true product of his generation my father quit his secure 9-5 with Freddie Mac and struck out on his own; an entrepreneur with three kids in tow. He has no problem telling me his army stories and doesn’t mind that at 63 he’s still trying to make his million.
These men are who they were when. Their behaviour directly stemmed from the values of their respective pasts.
I am no exception to this rule. Raised in both the U.S. and Germany, I am a product of the transatlantic partnership forged during the years between wars these men fought in. Although never witnessed first-hand, I know the consequences of what happened when transatlantic relations failed and I’ve experienced myself the benefits of a relationship that works.
Most of my peers, however, have no idea. They are also who they are where they were when.
They are Millennials, who grew up being told their lives would be even better than those of their baby-boomer parents. We are a generation too young to remember the fears of the Cold War. For us, MAD was a fact of life – only now being called into question as North Korea tests the limits of the West’s diplomatic red lines. For both Germans and Americans alike, in our lifetimes, my generation has never had a war fought on these countries’ soils. Sure, soldiers may be sent off to far-flung places – but nothing really changes at home. We did not experience the starvation of our grandparents, nor the alarm of our mothers and fathers when they practiced atomic bomb drills in school.
We are so lucky, but also naïve.
For most Millennials, the importance of international relations is not understood. It is a vague concept thought to be a good idea until tax season rolls around and people start to complain about “how much” is spent on NATO and state departments, and international development. Understandably so, more immediate concerns come to mind – like how to afford a mortgage, or pay off student loans.
My peers are not intentionally ignorant, they are just reacting to the most immediate concerns in their lives; transatlantic relations simply have little value to them.
I propose we change that.
My classes in high school were taught from textbooks. I learned 21st century history from those dusty pages, but the lessons were not real to me until I ran my hands along the Berlin Wall, and toured Auschwitz with a Jewish friend. The importance of transatlantic relations became tangible when I explored war bunkers and saw lampshades made of skin.
I was privileged to have history made real for me, and it is a privilege – that if given to all high school students – could help transform the involvement of youth in the U.S.- EU relationship today.
While study tours and exchange programmes are wonderful, we realise they cannot reach every student and it is this gap I address here.
For those in the know, the international aid industry has been toying with new fundraising tactics recently by combining virtual reality and humanitarian advocacy. In an effort to evoke empathy and consequently, open wallets, organisations have been creating virtual reality (VR) films – as opposed to traditional documentaries – in order to highlight the suffering of vulnerable populations worldwide.
From post-earthquake Haiti to refugee-laden Lesbos, VR film crews have given residents of the West a new tangible understanding of these people’s struggles. Unlike traditional media, someone watching a VR film has the opportunity to feel completely immersed in another environment. A VR camera is merely one that can shoot from any angle and while wearing VR goggles, or even watching on a screen, the viewer has the ability to observe a scene from 360 degrees.
Many big name agencies have been jumping on the VR bandwagon, including Médecins Sans Frontières, the U.K. Agency for International Development (DFID), and the United Nations. Indeed, in 2015, a VR film called Clouds over Sidra depicting life in a Jordanian U.N. refugee camp was released. After showing the film at fund-raising events people took off their VR goggles in tears, and according to the U.N., it raised $3.8 billion from donors.
Imagine if we could implement VR in the education sector! Instead of showing donors a refugee camp, we could show high-school students a concentration camp. A student in rural Alabama who may never get the chance to leave the U.S. in her lifetime could nonetheless “go” to the WWII bunkers of London Tube stations and experience what life was like when the U.S. and Europe were at war.
She may always be who she was where she was when, i.e. a rural post-Millennial Alabamian, and ten years after graduating she may still have mortgages and student loans as the most pressing issues on her mind, but she would remember the visceral experience VR gave her. When it came time to vote, she just might care what her candidate’s views on foreign policy are.