Before I Get Old

Gloom, like sex, sells, though it’s odd anyone would want to buy it considering that, also like sex, there’s so much of it freely available on the Internet. There’s certainly enough to be gloomy about: a pointless war, mortgage foreclosures, job losses, rich people in New York selling their spare diamonds to make ends meet. Times are hard.

They could get worse, too, if the current generation of students is as bad as some claim. I haven’t read Mark Bauerlein’s new book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, though I remember reading this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education a couple of years ago that’s obviously building up to the book. From the reviews, it sounds like a depressing read, and I gather from the title the problem is with the digital age. Perhaps it’s not just a problem with these kids today, though. Maybe the digital age is making us all stupid, as Nicholas Carr opines in the Atlantic. Maybe we’re turning (have turned?) into a culture of distracted skimmers without the attention necessary to read a book anymore. Perhaps channel-(or web) surfing is an accurate metaphor for our mental lives these days. Is it just our students who come to college as ignorant mouthbreathers panting for the next Facebook status update, or are we all like this now? It seems every week I read yet another article on how stupid we’re all becoming because we revel in distraction. Some naysayers go so far as to point a critical finger at blogs. (Disclaimer: you are now reading a blog. Blogs may be hazardous to your mind. Read at you’re own peril!)

Things may really be as bad as they seem, but somehow I can’t share in the gloom about the kids today, no matter how few of them can identify the Speaker of the House or how many of them know more about American Idol than Nathaniel Hawthorne. I might be more gloomy if I couldn’t remember the state of my own self when I was eighteen. It pains me now to think how woefully ignorant I was, how few books I’d read, how little I knew about all the subjects that I now love knowing about. Wait, no it doesn’t. This occurs to me because I have a birthday this week (don’t bother with presents, just send cash). If turning eighteen is the beginning of adulthood, I have been an adult for almost twenty-one years now.

How ignorant that eighteen-year-old was about all the subjects we claim are important! Perhaps most critics of the younger generation were always brilliant, erudite high achievers, even when young, like some of the wunderkind I see coming to Princeton. Not me. “Underachieving” was a label frequently applied to my meager efforts in school. Though now I have two college degrees in English literature, I’m not sure I ever managed to finish a book I was assigned to read in high school, and I vaguely remember sleeping through a number of my English classes. (My high school English teacher recently befriended me on Facebook, and I’m sure she’d be able to verify my scholastic inadequacies.) I was a lackadaisical student with little interest in learning what all my no doubt well intentioned teachers thought I should be learning. I wasn’t letting my schooling get in the way of my education.

My teachers seemed to like me for the most part, though, so I guess they didn’t take it personally. Well, except for that geography teacher I used to openly mock because of her incompetence. She didn’t like me very much and even had the nerve to call my parents and complain that I wasn’t taking her class seriously, as evidenced by the fact that I’d filled in deliberately fake answers on a quiz. (Trees that lose their leaves are not deciduous, for example, they are merely careless.) Also, I just remembered, the principal considered me a discipline problem because I frequently ignored the school dress code and kept my shirt untucked. Ahh, the simpler pre-Columbine days.

Certainly I learned things, and I read a lot. Though there weren’t many books in my house, I spent hours at the public library. I consumed books and articles on architecture, photography, and blues music, for example, because after a couple of years of photography and journalism classes in high school, I wanted to be a photojournalist. No, wait, after a couple of years of drafting class I wanted to be an architect. I’m sorry, I meant that I really wanted to be Eric Clapton, and I even have a black and white Strat just like he had back in the day. I probably couldn’t have told you who the Speaker of the House was in 1987. Tip O’Neill, perhaps? I could Google it to make sure. And politics? Why would anyone be interested in politics when there was so much architecture and photography around? And if you can play the blues, does it really matter if you can’t name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?

Oh, and television. I watched a ton of it. I’ve watched almost no commercial television since I turned eighteen, but that’s because I’d consumed a lifetime’s supply by then. I planned my life around Thursday nights on NBC. I wanted to go drinking at Cheers and then end up in Night Court, because I had crushes on both Shelley Long and Markie Post. I remember endless childhood Sunday afternoons watching old westerns on KXTX. We got cable TV when I was about six, and it was my friend and boon companion until I graduated from high school and gave up the habit.

And when I wasn’t blowing off my schoolwork, playing guitar, taking photos, or watching television, I was out with friends: going to parties, drinking, hanging out at the mall. It’s hard to believe that there were times when I and my friends had whole weekends with nothing “better” to do than sit around at someone’s house chatting and watching videos. Why wasn’t I reading the politics section of the newspaper? Why wasn’t I informing myself about the world? Why wasn’t I being a good, concerned citizen and steeping myself in my culture? Huh! I ask you that!

Despite all this, I seem to have come out okay, or at least I think so. The child is not always father of the man, it seems. I made it through college and two graduate programs with excellent grades. I’ve got a pretty good job, a loving family, a decent house. Despite almost completely ignoring my studies until college, I’m what most people would probably consider well read. I keep up on current events. I have a smartphone, an iPod, a laptop, and a blog, I email and IM and text message, but somehow I still manage to read a book or two a week on average. I’m now more than twice the age of our incoming college students, yet I don’t feel particularly old. I know almost nothing about contemporary youth culture and I certainly wouldn’t celebrate it, but I can’t bring myself to fault teenagers for doing the things kids do.

Perhaps all of us really are getting stupider, and this blog post is longer than most of us can read. Somehow, I just can’t get that concerned about it. I suppose I should be concerned as a citizen in a democracy, but I’m not convinced our politics are particularly democratic now, so a higher percentage of ignoramuses in a generation probably won’t have much of an effect. It might be that culture is always carried on by a remnant, and there are always bright and passionate people in every generation who manage to carry on and contribute to our knowledge of the world despite the odds.

A friend of mine mentioned he’d seen a recent clip of Roger Daltrey (now in his mid-sixties) singing “My Generation.” We saw him sing it live during The Who’s twenty-fifth reunion tour in 1989, and it seemed to me that he was old then, though he was just a few years older than I am now. It might seem ironic, his singing “I hope I die before I get old,” but maybe it depends on what it means to be old. Are we old when we can no longer understand these kids today? When we think it’s like they’re from another planet, as I recently heard a librarian say? Are we old when we judge the inadequacies of college students by our matured standards? When we no longer remember what unformed youths most of us were? When we actually believe that it’s more important for a teenager to know who the Speaker of the House is than to know the latest television shows? If that’s the case, I don’t want to get old.