Wednesday, March 26, 2008

People ten years younger than me haven't heard of anything

I'm continually surprised by the complete lack of cultural reference points (or context for available reference points) my mostly decade-younger fellow students exhibit in class discussions. The immediate present (or context-free reference to the recent past) is the only thing that seems to exist. I know I'm looking at the world with ten extra years of jackassery under my belt, and I allow a lot of concessions for that. When I was 18-21, I never rented any movies that predated the late 1960s, and I hardly ever rented any non-American films. My musical taste was narrower and rooted in the present and near-past, and I stuck to the 20th century in my choice of books. However, I spent those years slowly expanding my repertoire, and I had at least heard of a lot of stuff I hadn't yet experienced. I know it's the American way to be lazy, complacent, hostile to any kind of intellectual self-improvement, and stuck in the present, and knowing a lot of cultural references isn't really that important unless you experience the work behind these references, but sweet christ, the cultural history of the twentieth century sure seems irrelevant to today's newest adults (hereafter referred to as post-pubes) (not really). Even when they know who someone is, they know him or her from some of the most irrelevant shit he or she has ever made. Examples, overheard in my classes: "Who's that guy from As Good As It Gets? Oh yeah, Jack Nicholson." A group report about the film Red River in my Life and Lit of the Southwest class included a presentation about Howard Hawks. The girl giving the presentation mentioned some of the many actors Hawks either discovered or featured in their first important roles. James Caan was one of these actors. The girl said: "He's the guy from Elf." This makes me feel 10,000 years old, even though I'm pretty new to the planet myself.
Interestingly, the reference points of the middle school kids I'm observing and student teaching this semester are much more expansive than the 20-year-olds in my classes who've never heard of Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, Stanley Kubrick, Charlie Parker, Gary Cooper, the L.A. riots, Henry Kissinger, H.L. Mencken, the Fat Boys, Foreigner, Liz Phair, or the Sex Pistols. The middle school kids have heard of more writers, bands, and songs than my fellow English and education majors (though they claim every book is either "stupid" or "boring.") I've heard students singing 1970s and '80s metal, pre-fame R.E.M., sixties bubblegum pop, Nirvana's non-hits, and '80s gangsta rap and new wave. When I asked them about their favorite movies, Fried Green Tomatoes had a place in the pantheon. (Not a good movie, but, hey! It predates their existences!) I was baffled by this for weeks until I realized a lot of the parents of these 13-year-olds aren't much older than me. If I had more muscle tone, athleticism, stupidity, street smarts, a non-fear of rejection, a fear of latex, easier access to booze, and less access to drugs, heavy metal, and/or unrequited love in high school, I could be the father of a 13-year-old right now. So, this obsession with the present only (unless referenced on Family Guy) is a temporary, generational thing is all I'm saying, and I will stop worrying about it. Thanks, middle school loudmouth brats! You have actually heard of things that aren't really important but make Dr. Mystery feel better about the state of young adulthood and the health of this country's cultural references of yesterday, tomorrow, today, tomorrow.

Louis Black still sucks! Evidence here!


Krouchdog said...

I really hope that your generation-jumping theory is correct. Particular cultural references aren't all that important, but Jesus people, become interested in something and dig at least a little deeper than post-1995. Although, young college students do know a lot more about "sexy" than previous generations.

steigrrr said...

we should start a support group. imagine how i feel: i was born in 1970! the things that have stuck out this semester: the students in my nonmajors introduction to theatre class had never heard of charlie chaplin. never. heard. of. charlie. chaplin. ever.

i was lecturing on shakespeare and showed a version of macbeth that was filmed for bbc, starring ian mckellan. i wasn't too surprised that they didn't know him by name, or by his career as a shakespearian actor. but after we watched the scene they said, "oh, it's magneto." (they didn't mention gandalf, but perhaps the lord of the rings movies were "stupid" and "boring.")

and they didn't know which asian country was under allied occcupation after WWII. we were talking about a japanese american playwright on this particular day, and they couldn't even guess.

it gets to the point where i wonder how i can even lecture, since none of the things i'm saying make any sense at all to them. my teaching assistant and i were talking about it, and it isn't that we hold them in contempt or anything like that. mostly we just feel sorry for them! i guess that's kind of patronizing, but how rich can their lives be if they are content living in a vacuum?

Anonymous said...

what i have been wrestling with--not so much in the classroom since, thank christ, the zeitgeist has somehow caught up with my personal tastes, though that will only last for another year at which point i am utterly screwed--is the idea of whether and why a particular generation (ours; and, apparently, by extension, our offspring) would care at all about cultural references. after all, movies, tv, film, music, etc., were only super-widely available in the latter part of the 20th century (we are the first generation that could rent and watch movies at will, just as john zorn, et. al, were the first to have wide, easy access to music from around the world). my point is, prior to pop culture--and thus pop culture references--there was canonical culture (not really: you needed pop to have canon, but you get my drift) and if we want to believe that something like a postmodern generation is real--not just because tweed-jacketed assholes profit from such a notion, but because it feels as though it really existed, that generational differences matter--then what does the next generation hold for us, not so much aesthetically, but communicatively, insofar as communications are governed by dominant aesthetics? Is it sort of ok that quickie, offhand references to movies, music, and other--in the grand scheme of things--flickering and fleeting knick-knacks of Americana are not readily available to the average 18 year old? Mind you, I am not saying that I don't want to evangelize about these cultural artifacts (I love many of them dearly, and want others to love them too), I'm just wondering about our mode of communicating about them, as if everyone should know about them, as if we are a nation of Comic Book Guys or fanboys.
is this mode of communication--elliptic reference to mass culture--the defining feature of our generation?

i don't really have an opinion yet either way, it's just something i think about.

good job josh.


Prof. Tan-Tan McDlt, esq.

Dr. Mystery said...

Prof. McDlt,
Some of my post is sour grapes at not being 21 anymore, and at Back to School II being all work and no play this time (by choice, but damn), and anthropological curiosity at people 1-5 years older than the kids I will be teaching in less than 2 years. Time moves faster each year, and, for me, the 1990s just happened, while, for them, it's ancient history. I also have a love/hate relationship with our generation's elliptic relationship to mass culture. Each generation has their own thing going, and maybe I'm just another one of those losers who say, "Things were better in my day." Another thing to remember is that the average human being has never been particularly interested in having a wide array of cultural and/or canonical reference points, throughout human history. But, and this is a big but (big butt, get it?), a lot of my fellow students aren't interested in anything except television, including important, important details, figures, and works in their chosen major. This freaks me out. Some of my fellow English majors haven't heard of major writers from their own home state who are still currently writing and having films made of their books. Some of my fellow future English teachers hate poetry, anything that takes more than five minutes to read, and/or anything that doesn't make them feel warm and fuzzy about themselves. In my psychology class last semester, I had to participate in five research experiments to get credit for the class. In one experiment, I was placed in a room and had to talk for two minutes each with six different women and then rate them on a list of desirable characteristics. One of the women told me she wasn't currently enrolled in the class. She just had to do the five experiments because she didn't do them last semester and got an incomplete. She said she just didn't feel like doing the experiments. I asked her what her major was. She said, "Psychology." These aren't isolated incidents. They are the norm. The only thing I hear most of these students talk about is TV. They come to classes where attendance is not taken and spend the whole hour shopping online or watching TV on their laptops. I don't expect Joey Average American Pants to know much about Flannery O'Connor or Pavlov or Darwin, but people who have chosen to major in English or psychology or biology should give a damn about what they have chosen to study. The lack of curiosity is astonishing. People who chose to study something used to actually care about it in ways that moved beyond superficiality. So, for me, the problem moves beyond not having heard of certain references to not having a curiosity about anything that wasn't on television in the last five years. Maybe too many people are encouraged to go to college now who don't really want to be there and wouldn't have been there years ago. Maybe that sounds elitist, but maybe we're also moving toward a world in which dumb people or people with incredibly specialized knowledge are the only people graduating from college. I'm afraid that my future offspring will have some of my classmates for teachers, supervisors, co-workers, etc. Nobody needs to like, or even have heard of, the people who are important to me, but fuck, get interested in something besides Oprah and Gray's Anatomy.

steigrrr said...

ahhh, i wrote half of this long response and then i had to leave to see a play, and then i finished it. sorry for harping on this, but it is something i deal with a lot, so i'm really interested.

i was just having coffee with my brother and we were talking about this: i was surprised in my graduate class the other day when we were discussing the history of mexico and one of the students didn't know who cortez was.

this surprised me because she was a graduate student, but my brother pointed out something that i think was a good observation: at least she asked. she was, first of all, willing to admit that she didn't know-which i really applaud, despite my surprise and dismay at the lack of knowledge on the part of many of my students when it comes to significant historical events. it took me a long time to be willing to acknowledge my own ignorance of a lot of things because i was ashamed i didn't know them, so i am grateful as a teacher when students do have the courage to do that.

but part of the problem i see is exactly what i think you're getting at, dr. m. it’s not so much that usually people avoid asking because they're shy or feel like they should already know things. they don't respond or ask questions because they just don't care. this student was at least interested and made the effort to find out: wait, who is this cortez guy, and why are we talking about him?

Another one of my graduate students wrote a paper in which she discussed how much she admires and respects her mother, who did her a huge favor because “she taught me to be interested in general.” That seems like a rare thing these days, because (in the world a lot of the students I teach inhabit) being interested doesn’t have any material compensation—you can’t pay the bills with your curiosity. And therefore, what good does it do you to know who is cortez or charlie chaplin or that japan was occupied by allied forces after the bombing of hiroshima/nagasaki and the end of wwii?

So I guess what I’m saying is that it seems like a combination of a lot of things—mainly, systemic problems that include a history of school as a place for "smart people" to display knowledge everyone is supposed to already miraculously have (rather than school as a process of collective conversation and learning). but also college as a utilitarian place for spending some time and money so you can get a job that pays decent money, etc. etc.