Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Time In Which We Come of Age©

Updated: 14 June 2017

I read something Elizabeth Dole said at a university commencement in 2015 that put into words something which I have been concerned about for the past several years. Admittedly, capturing such amorphous, fuzzy, misty thoughts floating around in my mind is not a strong suit. But ... I am pretty good at recognizing them when someone else crystallizes them in words. Here is what she said:  “In addition to the wonderful skills, traits and knowledge you have learned at Norwich [University], the time in which you came of age has shaped your perspective in a unique and profound way.”(1)  A common notion you may say. Good for you, but I have been thinking about the problems which exist because of the “generation gap” for a long time and I never quite got my finger on this button. Now I have it quite a few things come into much clearer perspective.
Mrs. Dole frames this idea in a fairly positive context with a bit of a warning about growing up in the age of information and connectivity. For me her insight illuminated the potential source of a number of problems I observed as I spent my life teaching the young and experienced an ever widening gap as I grew older, but the students sitting before me were generally the same age from year to year. I have also observed the reality of her insight in my children and especially my grandchildren.
The crux of the problem I have observed is that each generation (20 years or two decades or so in length), grow up thinking that their way of seeing and thinking and feeling is the correct way to see, think, and feel. Of course, what else are they to assume? Here is where wise parents and educators come in. It is their duty to help the most recent generations learn that what they see, think, and feel is shaped by the time and place in which they come of age, but it has not always been the way it is now, and that others growing up in another time or another place, many of whom are still alive, are shaped by their times and places too and therefore, there are many different ways of perceiving the world, and of thinking and feeling about it. Thus, they should exercise some caution, judgment, and a modicum of humility before making too many assumptions and judgments about the relative superiority of their time and place.
Because ... it is entirely possible that in the rapid pace of change the world is experiencing now, it is just possible, that some very good things have been forgotten, lost, or ignored in relationship to how one perceives, thinks, and feels about the world in which they live. In another commencement address Mrs. Dole pointed out that many of today’s students, (now it involves the majority of those in high school) do not know by personal experience a single thing which happened in the Twentieth Century, and many of them do not have a memory about 9/11, 2001! What they know of two World Wars, the Korean conflict, Vietnam, and the Gulf, for example, which shaped much of the Twentieth Century, is not by personal experience, but by way of a history class and/or the Internet.

Moreover, there are many prophecies in the Bible and in Mormon scriptures as well as by modern prophets which characterize the time we live in as one in which Satan claims this earth as his dominion and as a time of especially great wickedness, corruption, war, rebellion, loss of natural affection, degradation, conflict, loss of morality, hate, materialism, political and social strife, spiritual weakness, dishonesty, and hypocrisy, just to mention a few. Those who educate and guide the young need this spiritual perspective as well as one borne out of the understanding and wisdom which comes from wide reading in history of all kinds--not just about political events, wars, and the elite--but also the history of science, art, culture, religion, technology, economics and other subjects.  Many biographies contribute to this widening of perspective and deepening of understanding and wisdom.

Interestingly, a day after I read Dole’s talk I came across one from Peggy Noonan that addresses the issue and provides an example with great insight–especially on the value of history and biography. She was talking about young–under 45–journalists and politicians who want to make history, but know nothing of history because all the have they got from the Internet.
They have seen the movie and not read the book. They’ve heard the sound bite but not read the speech. They read the headline on Drudge or the Huffington Post and then jump to another site with more headlines. Their understanding of history, even recent history, is therefore superficial.  Here is the problem:  If those trying to make history have only a shallow sense of history, they will not be able to make anything good. 
They came to maturity in the internet age and have filled much of their brain-space with information that came in the form of pictures and sounds. They learned, that is, through sensation, and not through books, which demand something deeper from your brain. 
Reading books forces you to imagine, question, ponder, reflect, connect one historical moment with another. Reading books provides a deeper understanding of political figures and events, of the world -- of life itself. 
Watching a movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis shows you a drama. Reading histories of it presents you with a dilemma.  The book forces you to imagine the color, sound, tone and tension, the logic of events:  It makes your brain do work. 
But, oddly, it's work the brain wants to do. 
A movie or documentary is received passively: You sit back, see and hear.  Books demand more and reward more. When you read them your knowledge base deepens and expands.  In time that deepening comes to inform your own work, sometimes in ways of which you’re not fully conscious.(2)
Here is one more along these lines that is worth stopping to think about in this context. It is from Helen Mirren's commencement address at Tulane less than a month ago.
My parents' generation were born at the end of one World War, survived a global economic meltdown, and then fought a second World War. And of course, for their heroic efforts they were rewarded by my generation deciding to reject everything they stood for.(3)
Many examples of good things which may be lost as a result of the colloquialism amd “presentism” of our personal perspectives could be given. I may do that someday when I can devote the necessary time to think them through.(4) My purpose in writing today is to heighten awareness of this issue and the problems it can create in the minds of teachers and young parents and in the minds of the young themselves. (This has to be the height of folly, doesn’t it, to think a young person–under 18 or perhaps even under 25, will read this? Alas, hope springs eternal.)  
My hope is that parents and teachers armed with this illuminating insight may take some action to help youth more properly adjust their thinking and feeling–much of which is good, even great, but some of which may be deficient because of the absence of some good things which are not present in the present!

Let’s think together again, soon.

Notes

1.  Elizabeth Dole, commencement address at Norwich University, 9 May 2015, available on the internet at: 
 http://oc.norwich.edu/blog/transcript-sen-elizabeth-doles-2015-norwich-commencement-address/
Peggy Noonan describes the process discussed in this paragraph:  "It [reading] will change how your very mind works. And in some magical way the deep thoughts of others give a spark to, and almost give permission to, thoughts of your own that had been lurking about but never had the courage to present themselves..." See footnote 2 for reference.

2.  Peggy Noonan, commencement address at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 13 May 2017.  Available online at:
http://www.cua.edu/speeches-and-homilies/2017/commencement-2017.html

3.  Helen Mirren, commencement address at Tulane University, 20 May 2017.  Available online at:
https://www2.tulande.edu/grads/speaker/

4.  I’m thinking here of such things as the almost universal notion in liberal universities and colleges which equates tolerance with acceptance, and promoting nearly unquestioningly the values of diversity and individualism without regard to the positive benefits of cooperation and unity. Or, what appears to be to be a near fatal loss of understanding of the values and principles accepted and espoused by the Framers of the Constitution and the devaluing of the Constitution itself. Or, the denigration of the values of traditional marriage between a man and a woman and of traditional family life. Or, the nearly total abandonment of accompanying emphasis on chastity among the sexes and fidelity in marriage.

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