I was recently struck by this meme going around. You know how about Paul McCartney doing the surprise song with Kanye West, and West’s fans saying stuff like “I love it when he discovers unknowns” and “McCartney will have a career now.”
A lot of people a little older than I, and even my generation and a little younger were in shock over this.
… I don’t know why… I don’t know why, because what it brought to mind was two things:
My brother’s shocked gasp when my kids – then eight and thirteen – asked what the Beatles were, after a casual reference of his. And then he told me I was miss educating my kids.
And a book I read long ago which I cannot remember either by title or author, about the sixties and the student activism in the schools in the sixties and early seventies.
That book (though I can’t remember title or name of author, because I read it while moving into this house 11 years ago, and what I pull up when I think about it is carrying boxes into the basement) was like a revelation to me.
You see, because the future comes from America, and America sets “how things are done” in this new world, (and because unfortunately the people in other countries are remarkably bad at evaluating American experiments and take the bad (and the very bad) with the good) I saw the effluvia of the change to education in America due to the summer of sixty eight and the subsequent “student take over of college.”
For instance, in Middle School art, instead of learning perspective or lighting, we spent the entire summer painting a mural outside. Which for me mostly meant dodging the older guys who tried to splat girls with paint. Instead of having grades given for our work, we were supposed to grade ourselves. This became an exercise in seeing who was clueless enough to give themselves a C. I gave myself a B because I saw all my issues. Mostly the dumb kids gave themselves A. This was however better than having your classmates grade you, in which school grades became the Hugos. It was all popularity and the mean girls all got As and screamed if anyone else got more than C.
Fortunately that only lasted for a year.
But I found that the background of something else which had baffled me throughout my school career was also traceable to the student movement in the US.
Look, dad went to a school that was (comparatively) way worse than the ones my brother and I attended, both of which were “Magnet schools” for bright kids. And yet, he came out of it speaking Latin with ease, reading Latin poetry with fluency, being able to identify the style and time of a painting at a glance, and with a knowledge of world history and literature that left me speechless. (True story, the equivalent of my Master Thesis (It’s not that. It’s… complicated) was in American Literature, on Flannery O’Connor. She’s so unknown in Portugal that I had to ask my then-fiance to send me some of her works I couldn’t get there, as well as biographical information on her. This was, of course, pre-internet. When he came over to propose, he brought a bagful of books, because yes, he’s a sweetheart.) I was in the living room, surrounded by books in English. Dad wandered in, picked up one of the books, said “Ah, Flannery O’Connor” and proceeded to give me an extemporaneous lecture on the symbolism she employed. (His degree, btw, is art and textile engineering, not literature.)
My brother still had Latin, but only two years, and it never stuck to any depth. I never had it at all. Instead of Latin we were taught “relevant” things, like whatever was current at the time. We studied headlines and commercial jingles, in language classes; we were encouraged (to the point of nausea) to express ourselves in song and theater and story (and most of it was what you expect) and painting.
Music was no longer on the menu. Latin was no longer on the menu. I did get History but almost subversively and under the table, because my curmudgeon of a teacher refused to NOT teach and just let us play around.
Most of my schooling, except for two years in a stealth gifted class (gifted classes being outlawed) I found myself scrambling to try to learn more than what I was being taught. Because what I WAS being taught was to the previous’ generations’ knowledge base about like a candle to the sun.
And meanwhile things came in that we had to learn: who had written what protest song/poem; what the currently fashionable attitude on sex-drugs-rock and roll was; the “wisdom” of people ten years older than I.
All of this baffled me, until I read about students taking over universities in the US and the older people caving to their demands.
Turns out it’s EXACTLY like when the revolution introduced “revolutionary councils” to our schools which were run by kids (for about two months, before the parents stepped in, because revolutionary times or not they were not nuts and thought 11 year olds should NOT be playing around all day.) These students in the US really did have “revolutions” and “sit ins” to force the colleges to give them more ice cream, free time, and sex classes. Or, as they called it, “more relevant learning.”
I understand it, to an extent. Look, the boomers were a massive swell. The fact that those who took “action” were often also acting on Communist propaganda is something else. The fact there were so may of them of more or less the same age produced the illusion of a group that “belonged” together. Instead of trying to integrate with the culture, they tried to create the culture.
It’s not their fault. The fault is of the then-adults who, whether in guilt at the long wars of the 20th, or out of blinkered ideas that youth would increase forever in proportion to the population, decided to give in.
And by the time I came along, a lot of these “kids” now adults and with teaching degrees were the teachers. They couldn’t teach what they’d never learned or demand a rigueur that had been done away with for them.
Instead, what they taught us were the touchstones of their generation, including the importance of protesting, sit ins and tearing down the culture, (Well, it wasn’t perfect, you know?) and the names of their idols, mostly in pop music, because real culture is hard. (Though from science fiction we also read a lot of their cohort in school. Because SF was then cool in Portugal. Socially relevant SF.)
Most of the people my generation and a little younger have spent most of their lives catching up on the general culture stuff we were never taught. Even in stuff like cooking and cleaning, it’s like we were raised by wolves, and have to relearn civilization by ourselves.
Turns out “learn what is fun only” and “express yourself” doesn’t give you a good grounding in western civ.
We acquired – those of us who did – the timeless knowledge like purloined goods, in street corners and back alleys, from used bookstores and older friends, and sometimes just by sitting quietly while older people talked.
But since the sixties/seventies, there has been an emphasis on the “now” and only the “now” counting.
For a while that “now” was frozen in the boomers’ youth. (Again the swell of population, the numbers of people just distorting things.)
But it couldn’t stay there. It moved on.
The boomer teachers/professors couldn’t give the younger generations the grounding they never had. My generation being just after theirs, sort of caught on, by listening to parents. We at least knew what we didn’t know.
The kids after? Clueless. It’s all express yourself and whatever is going on Now, Now, Now! And it’s not their fault. Who created the culture of ephemera? Not they.
In the long run, I doubt if either McCartney or Kanye West will be more than a footnote in specialized histories, (of music and their times) though McCartney will be relevant too for the story of a generation, for the influences of the first mass-media and largest age-group to go through the culture. Okay, he might be more than a footnote, at least as part of the Beatles, but it will only be in reference to that time, that place, and to music.
Because in the end, music was very important for that generation, but it is not science, nor Earth-altering. Whether it will turn out to be “art” in the sense of echoing through the centuries… we’ll see. The kids don’t seem to feel it now, but those eclipses are sometimes temporary.
The more important thing about the episode of MCartney/Kanye, is the problem with our culture. We are a culture that was taught only the ephemeral, the pop culture markers of a generation are important.
This is the real root of stuff like the young kids in our field thinking that, yah, writing about non-binary gender was this thing they invented and that SF/F before them was all white males. It’s not just that they don’t know, but that they acquired a pop-culture image of the past.
Civilization – such as we’ve known it since we learned to write and pass on ideas – consists of knowing from where we came and where we’re going.
In a world that is not perfect, it helps to know where some of the imperfections (and the unexpected grace notes, too) come from. It helps to know, for instance, that until recently media went through a narrow channel that set what was “acceptable” because everything was broadcast by half a dozen people. It helps to know that yeah, perhaps women had less participation, but it wasn’t the plotting of men keeping them out. It was the plotting of mother nature.
If you don’t know the past you’re caught in the perpetual now and fighting against “injustices” you assume are willfully caused by some group or another – until the next reaction sets in. And you’re perpetually “discovering” things everyone else knew.
Some of that effect is inevitable, but some grounding in your own culture should be provided by your elders who KNOW they’re not inventing the wheel fresh.
Until we correct that, until we make sure the kids learn some of the basics of history and their own civilization, Oikophobia, pop-culturism and rewriting the past shall ride with us, and (cultural) death shall be at our side, ever ready to pounce.
Fifty years of the equivalent of ice cream for lunch and recess all day is more than enough. It’s time that (real) teachers stepped in, instead of leaving the kids alone.
Teach your children well – even if to do it you have to teach yourself first.