The Theory of Generational Relativity

I suspect that many readers will find this article by Mark Morford laughably alarmist. Its argument is that American students are now so dumb that within a generation or two, none of them will be able to perform even relatively … Read More

By / October 29, 2007
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I suspect that many readers will find this article by Mark Morford laughably alarmist. Its argument is that American students are now so dumb that within a generation or two, none of them will be able to perform even relatively simple tasks like operating a TiVo or following the instructions on a Hot Pocket sleeve. Think of the children, missing episodes of “A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila” or dying by the dozens of third-degree cheesy burns! And if that doesn’??t scare you, how about a future in which these kids are responsible for, say, air-traffic control, structural engineering, and oncology research? Yet the general public continues to shrug and ask, like the ur-nimrod Alfred E. Neuman, “?What, me worry?”? To put it another way, they focus on climate change instead of primate change—the environment, not the rapidly devolving Morlocks who inhabit it. 

It is, in short, nothing less than a tidal wave of dumb, with once-passionate, increasingly exasperated teachers like my friend nearly powerless to stop it. The worst part: It’??s not the kids’?? fault. They’??re merely the victims of a horribly failed educational system.

Then our discussion often turns to the meat of it, the bigger picture, the ugly and unavoidable truism about the lack of need among the government and the power elite in this nation to create a truly effective educational system, one that actually generates intelligent, thoughtful, articulate citizens.

Hell, why should they? After all, the dumber the populace, the easier it is to rule and control and launch unwinnable wars and pass laws telling them that sex is bad and TV is good and God knows all, so just pipe down and eat your Taco Bell Double-Supremo Burrito and be glad we don’??t arrest you for posting dirty pictures on your cute little blog.

This is about when I try to offer counterevidence, a bit of optimism. For one thing, I've argued generational relativity in this space before, suggesting maybe kids are no scarier or dumber or more dangerous than they’??ve ever been, and that maybe some of the problem is merely the same old awkward generation gap, with every current generation absolutely convinced the subsequent one is terrifically stupid and malicious and will be the end of society as a whole. Just the way it always seems.

The piece is generally on point, but there are two flaws I’??d like to consider. The first is more than anything a fashionable tic: The conservative administration is both a pro-war bogeyman and an anti-sex bogeyman, which means it needs an unending supply of slavish, ignorant cannon fodder, but opposes the one means—other than robotics, I guess—by which to get it. This is a classic case of having one’??s paranoia and debunking it, too. If you’re interested in an infinitely more nuanced approach to the idea that our education system is intentionally flawed, John Taylor Gatto’??s your man.

My second complaint is more serious, and it has to do with the dangerously seductive concept of “??generational relativity.” I first encountered this idea in a review by Joyce Carol Oates of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood:

Adult anxiety about youthful literacy is the social conservative’??s favoured mode of anxiety about other, more alarming predilections of youth, as “??A Letter to the Rising Generation”? by Cornelia Comer, which originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, makes clear:

The younger generation, she grumbled, couldn’??t spell, and its English was “??slipshod.”? Today’s youth were selfish, discourteous, lazy, and self-indulgent. Lacking respect for their elders or for common decency, the young were hedonistic, “shallow, amusement-seeking creatures” whose tastes had been “??formed by the colored supplements of the Sunday paper”? and “the moving-picture shows.”? The boys were feeble, flippant, and “??soft”? intellectually, spiritually, and physically. Even worse were the girls, who were brash, loud, and promiscuous with young men.

All this, in 1911!

That “??punchline”? reveals a mentality which, at least as far as this subject goes, is utterly incapable of simple distinctions. In 1911, being discourteous? might have meant slouching or leaving your shirt untucked. In 2007, it more likely means cursing out your teacher with language all but unknown to kids at the turn of the century. Newspaper cartoons in 1911 included Winsor McCay’s “??Little Nemo in Slumberland” and, just a few years later, George Herriman’s immortal “??Krazy Kat.”? The idea that there are diamonds of that water in the rough of today’??s “??shallow amusements” is just a lazy insult to taste.

I think these examples illustrate my point. Just because the complaints are alike in kind doesn’??t make them anywhere near the same in degree. The boys in S. E. Hinton’??s The Outsiders don’t have much in common with the droogs in Anthony Burgess’??s A Clockwork Orange, and the failure or refusal to acknowledge this is an abdication of adult responsibility. Things fall apart. The question isn’??t whether youth culture gets worse but how best to forestall the inevitable. To that end, we can do without the Theory of Generational Relativity, which makes light of the problem because it’s afraid of looking uncool. If adults have lost confidence to such an extent that they care what kids think, the little terrors have already won.

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