Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"I Weep for the Future"

         In 1997, I started teaching a night class each semester at the University of Texas at Tyler.  Last year, I picked up a class at Lon Morris College in nearby Jacksonville.  Starting this fall, my UT classes will go online (unfortunately), but I will be teaching 2 night classes, and possible a 3rd, at Lon Morris.  Since I still have my "real" job during the day, this should keep me occupied.  The pay is pretty meager, but I thoroughly enjoy teaching, especially college students.
     Without being condescending, I will have to say that it continues to amaze me how little these young people know--and I'm not even talking about history, for that is a given.  I am referring to the very popular culture that defines them in every way.  They seemingly have little to no knowledge of any cultural currents that precede their present and immediate past.  Last Monday night, I was introducing my class to the 1980s--Reaganism and Republican economic theorizing and all that.  To try and explain "Supply-Side Economics" which then-candidate George H. W. Bush correctly labeled "voodoo economics," I referenced the opening scene from Ferris Beuller's Day Off.   (Every informed reader here will undoubtedly remember Ben Stein portraying a boring high school economics teacher---"something d-o-o economics, voodoo economics.")  My class of 23 had absolutely no idea of what I was talking about.  Not a single one of them had ever seen the film.  Now, if I wanted to get on an intellectual high horse, I could dismiss this movie as a bit of inconsequential, superficial fluff about the improbable adventures of 3 snotty, pampered--and not particularly sympathetic--rich kids skipping school on a lark.  I would suggest that someone taking this view needs to lighten-up a bit.  The film is a guilty pleasure of mine, and I still find it a helluva lot of fun--with any number of classic lines.  Young people could do far worse than take the last, or near last line of the movie as a charge for life.  When I first started teaching, I could affect a monotone and ask "anyone, anyone" and usually get a glimmer of recognition from a few students.  No longer.  They would be equally oblivious were I to toss out a line from Animal House or Blazing Saddles--not to mention more serious fare, such as the The Graduate
     Granted, none of these films speak well for the health of our American nation, other than perhaps an ability to laugh at ourselves.  But that does not mean they are without importance.  I once had a friend who refused to read fiction, it being a a position of pride with him.  I used to argue with him about this.  How could one possibly know anything about the Victorian era, for example, without at least some exposure to Dickens?  Our son grew up reading everything--and watching these classic movies with us, as well.    A conversation between the 3 of us could contain a line from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or All About Eve, or Young Frankenstein, and we all get it.  For better or for worse, these films were touchstones of particular eras of our history, and help provide context for a confusing present.  My students have no such moorings, and are seemingly adrift--historically, culturally, and in far more serious aspects of life.

18 comments:

John said...

Hi Terry

Check out my latest FB post. Reagan rules!

BTW, I am in a fantasy baseball league with your neighbor. We are playing this week and I am losing.

I've got you in my Google Reader. I just started using it and it's pretty cool.

I think fiction is very important. It helps with creativity and helps one to express themselves. Faulkner also rules!

Have a good day and enjoy the bluebonnets.

Clint said...

I had to stop using "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" as a reference in my college English classes, because none of my students have seen,nor heard, of it.

Theron Mathis said...

Wow, my sons will be prepared for life in the future.

My oldest and I spend about 30-45 mins a night watching my old favorites. Recently we watched Red Dawn and WarGames.

Then I had to explain the cold war and the fear of the nuclear bomb.

I just read an entertaining book that was full of 80's pop culture: Ready Player One. If you are an 80's nerd, then you will be smiling from cover to cover.

David Dickens said...

I'm not sure I can grasp the thought that you are disappointed that students don't know enough about mass media anti-culture.

I have my guilty pleasures as well (ELO), but I don't get wrought over younger kids not appreciating them.

Books are better, but still the same substance.

Yeah, I'm in full modernity stinks mode today.

Samn! said...

Out of curiosity, what exactly are you teaching? I've been living off of adjuncting for the past two years (enough so that I'm pretty well burned out on the whole being an academic thing....), at a variety of different types of colleges: a dismally depressing liberal arts college on Staten Island, a big, mostly-immigrant state U in NJ, and now a Jesuit college in CT, and one of the things I've definitely learned is that at not-quite-30, I'm definitely of a different generation (and culture) from a 19-year-old from the Northeast.

This week in a class I teach about Islam, we were talking about pop-culture representations of Islam, and none of the students could name a movie example other than Aladdin. None had even heard of Rambo III ("Dedicated to the Brave Mujahidin of Afghanistan"), or any of the action movies of the 80's and 90's with middle-eastern terrorists as the bad guys. I'm inclined to think that pop-cultural literacy is an important part of being cultured within our society. I mean, you don't want to be like the character Abed from Community, but it would be very hard to really have a grasp of the past century or so of our cultural heritage if you're not familiar with, say, Gilbert and Sullivan, the Marx Brothers, Rogers and Hammerstein, Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and then yeah, Mel Brooks and etc....

(My friend sitting here is telling me about teaching a class where the students hadn't heard of the Ramones.... I give up.)

ochlophobist said...

Reading Ferris Bueller referred to as a "classic movie" makes me feel old. It was one of the first movies I went to with friends unaccompanied by an adult. A buddy of mine had made me and our little group go with him to see Rambo: First Blood, Part II - our parents had to go up with us to the ticket counter and tell them it was OK for us to go in. Not long after that I made them all go to Ferris Beuller and we repeated lines from that movie to each other for the duration of high school.

Though his films are not as popular and perhaps a bit too cerebral for undergrad college kids these days, I think that were I to teach a class on the 80s I might give extra credit to students who watch one or more of Whit Stillman's first three films. Whenever I think of interpreting the 80s I think Whit Stillman, for good or for ill.

I haven't seen his new one (Damsels in Distress) yet, but I look forward to watching it.

John said...

Samn,
At UT Tyler, I teach a quasi-historical class—History of the Texas Public Domain—which covers land policy and use of archives in Texas through Spanish, Mexican, Republic and state administrations (unique among the states, there has never been any federal land in Texas, except perhaps our national park.) I also teach a law course dealing with boundary and real estate issues, and the applicable court cases. At Lon Morris, I teach the American History survey course from the end of Reconstruction to the current era. I will be teaching their World Civilization class (can’t wait for this) and perhaps an American History survey course up through the Civil War.

John said...

Oh, I forgot to mention that one of my students did show enough interest to ask me if it was a black and white film.

John said...

Clint, you got it--Bill and Ted and So-crates! The funny thing about that movie was that it turned out to be the best work Keanu Reeves ever did--it was all downhill from there.

Theron, thanks for the book tip--it sounds good, though I am no more enamored of the 80s than any other decade.

David, I guess my point is that they have no context for anything that went before them. For better or for worse, popular culture is part of the historical mix. Think about how many throw-away lines from movies pepper our conversations: "I'm shocked, shocked!", "round-up the usual suspects," "an odor of mendacity," "buckle your seat-belts, it's going to be a bumpy night," "what we have here is a failure to communicate," "double-secret probation," and on and on it goes. Of course, it can sometimes get you in trouble. My wife never liked that I referred to her sister as Sister-Woman.

s-p said...

Wow that is hard stuff! I deal with high school students all day and yeah, the lack of context outside of what is "hot TODAY" is astounding... they don't even see their "culture" as context or connected to anything else much less in any kind of philosophical model. (Of course there's a lot of "grown ups" that don't do that either.) My kids do quote movie lines and songs, however. I guess it is inevitable that you may live long enough to hear a radio station that plays "your music" go from "from so and so's first album" to classic rock to "oldies" and the defining media become intellectual fodder for niche classes in esoteric college degree programs. sigh....

Becky said...

We JUST watched Ferris Bueller 2 days ago. My kids are very up on movie history all the way back to 30's musicals, but you knew that already. They quote Fawlty Towers, Monty Python and the Blues Brothers an awful lot, too.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Well, I'll become 65 on Saturday, and I remember well when Ferris was playing in theaters. Never went to see it, though. Am I illiterate?

Blazing Saddles I've seen twice, but doubt I could remember many lines from it.

The Graduate, once, but I was unimpressed and about all I remember is "Jesus loves you, Mrs. Robinson".

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, All About Eve, Young Frankenstein - nope, never saw any of them.

I guess I haven't much use for popular culture. Except (some) Broadway musicals. Anybody in my family can quote from My Fair Lady and sing every song from Oklahoma.

elizabeth said...

I admit to not watching many movies; however one of my interests indeed is trying to figure out how we got to where we are now... culturally we really not well, hey?

enjoyed this post - thank you.

John said...

Becky--your kids were raised right! (That itself, a paraphrase of a movie line.)

A T--no, you are not illiterate, though I do think you might enjoy the movie. You could watch it as a critique of modern American consumerist culture--which in fact it is. I don't have much use for most popular culture either. My point is that these students are so malnourished that they do not even have an awareness of much of anything that went before. They have no idea of why a movie might have been wildly popular in the parents' time, mainly because they cannot name even one movie from the previous generation. It they were readers, it wouldn't matter. But they are not.

Elizabeth, you're right. We are certainly not well culturally, and this stew has been brewing for a long, long time.

Fr Joseph Huneycutt said...

I suspect, at the moment - for good or ill, that the Harry Potter series (books, movies) might serve as a point of reference for students?

Ian Climacus said...

I often feel I missed, either through indifference or not paying enough attention, much recent (19th/20th C) history... I am trying to rectify this. I add this as I can identify in myself what you write about a lack of cultural and historical mooring in my life. I cannot blame education only, I too am to blame, but here (Oz) education was very specific and streamlined and even in uni all I did was maths and computing science; I hear US and European unis give a broader, liberal arts, education. Is this still true?

On popular culture, I do seem to have let much pass me by due to various circumstances...luckily I have friends helping me understand all I missed. :)

suleyman said...

I'm a PhD candidate in history, and I have also experienced this with college students. I remember once referencing "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" when talking about Cold War paranoia - none of the students had ever heard of it. I was dumbfounded, but then I remembered that I had grown up in the Cold War (I should point out that I'm only 30), while these kids were born in the 90s. I feel as though our instantaneous, meme-based culture is so ephemeral that it produces a kind of person who is not concerned with what happened in the past, whether the past we are talking about is pop culture from half a century ago or 19th century political economy.

John said...

Suleyman,
Well said. I find it interesting that both you and Samn (each about 30 years old) see a sharp distinction between yourselves and those born in the 90s. So it is not just me, drifting off into old-fogeyhood. As a postscript, I might add that it is not just the U.S. I had a 7' tall Croatian student here on a basketball scholarship. On the final exam, he missed the question on the Iron Curtain.