Sunday, September 30, 2007

Back to School: Report #2

Not much has changed since my first time in college, but occasionally something happens that makes me feel 1,000 years older than most of the other students (though there is a person or two my age and older in all my classes, excepting the 101s). I don't feel much distance between my decrepit 30-year-old ass and their firm, luscious 20-year-old asses, but for whatever reason, many of these younger students' cultural references either don't extend past 1998 or are chronologically confused.
Example #1: In my post-Harlem Renaissance African-American lit class, I worked on a group project about blues music of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s and its relation to Zora Neale Hurston's prose. During a group meeting, a girl said, "Roberta Flack might be a good example. She was right around this time period, right? Or was she a little later?"
Example #2: In my American Lit class, we watched the first fifteen minutes of Peter Bogdanovich's Daisy Miller after reading the Henry James story. In the film, Daisy's little brother was played by Larry McMurtry's son James, who is currently an Austin singer-songwriter. The professor told us that the young actor grew up to be a musician and asked us if we knew who it was. One of my fellow students said, "Neil Young?" Keep in mind, he'd already told us the year of the movie's release, 1974.
Example #3: In my enormous 500-student psychology class, one of the two professors asked the lecture hall how many of us had seen A Clockwork Orange? Only about 30 people raised their hands.

I don't think it's necessary, or even that important, to have a rough estimate of when Roberta Flack's career began or how old Neil Young was in 1974, or to have seen the Kubrick film (his worst, in my opinion, though very appealing to people in their late teens and early twenties and extremely popular with that age bracket the last time I was in that age bracket, which I didn't think was that long ago but apparently some cultural shift has taken place and maybe these kids are all really into Barry Lyndon). I don't think knowing pop culture details and approximate dates makes anyone smart. I'm just surprised. Middle-aged co-workers at my last job were always saying things to me like, "You're probably too young to have ever heard of Jack Benny/Nina Simone/Paul Simon/Spiro Agnew, etc." and I was always taken aback by that. I always assume people are aware of at least a few things that predated their births. I mean, come on. By their logic, no one alive should have the slightest fucking clue who William Shakespeare or Abraham Lincoln are. Civil War? Never heard of it. Who the fuck are The Beatles? Spare me your arcane minutiae, Pops. This is the nineties. But maybe my middle-aged coworkers were right to assume I'd never heard of anything that predated 1977. Maybe my friends and I are Paleolithic weirdos for being interested in things that happened prior to "Desperate Housewives." But in my culturally deprived small Midwestern hometown in the early 1990s in the adolescent world of immediate-present-only, we watched Cheech and Chong movies, listened to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and knew that Roberta Flack was not an early 20th century blues singer. It wasn't all Alice in Chains, Encino Man, Bell Biv Devoe, Lorena Bobbitt jokes, and Clearly Canadian. We didn't live in a total vacuum. Does anyone remember John Tesh? Is there anybody out there who remembers "Manimal"? I have been left behind. Kool and the Gang are contemporaries of Emily Dickinson in the world of today's youth. My beer gut grows larger as my capacity to learn new technologies diminishes. The Grim Reaper takes my hand, and I sing Kajagoogoo's "Too Shy" as I slowly shuffle toward my demise. Remember me as someone who experienced my pop culture firsthand, not through Peter Griffin. Fuck the police. Welcome to the jungle. Do you like pina coladas?


carrie said...

i love zora neale hurston!

Anonymous said...

day one of the second quarter i taught, i had a--ultimately decent--jackass ask me if i "liked clockwork orange in high school." the whole class understood this as some kind of code.

sadly, i think "boondock saints" is the equivalent now. (seriously. it's probably the movie most shoved in instructors' faces by undergrads as evidence of "edgy-hipness." it's also, inexplicably, listed as a university favorite on facebook.)

steigrrr said...

i get surprised by stuff like this all the time, and then wonder if my dismay is unfounded.

last year, i was lecturing about anna deavere smith's "twilight: los angeles, 1992" and out of the class of two hundred or so students only four (two of them the only african american students in the class) had any idea who rodney king was or that the '92 LA riots had even happened. i was stunned. i am continually having to spend more time in lectures than i intended because i have to go back and explain stuff i assumed the students already knew.

if you are nearing decrepitude, what does that make me? i was a whole 22 years old in 1992, studying medieval and renaissance art in italy when the la riots happened. good god. i'm a fossil.