Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why those 'dumb kids who thought Titanic wasn't real' stories don't mean a damn thing other than serve as an example of our own generational snobbery.

"Oh no!", shouts America.  There are kids on Facebook and/or Twitter who didn't realize that James Cameron's Titanic was based on a true story!  Obviously this is a prime example of the dumbing-down of America and proof that educational standards in America have hit rock-bottom, and that kids today just don't have an appreciation for history.  All of those things may be true, but what I see is less an example of dumbed-down kids than an older generation once again shocked... SHOCKED that today's kids don't care about the same things we care about.  First of all, let's presume for a moment that someone didn't extensively surf Facebook or Twitter and find a dozen or so messages that had kids expressing astonishment that Titanic was a real ship that really sank in 1912.  Assuming that the examples in question are enough of a sampling to imply that a decent number of kids don't know about early 20th-century passenger vessel sinkings, so what?  I'm sure every single one of you who are up-in-arms about this can deliver a five-minute historical report about the sinking of the Lusitania way back in May of 1915.

The sinking of the Titanic is not 'important' so much that it happens to be something that historians and pop-culture pundits are interested in.  Be it the irony and hubris involved or the fact that the ship took so long to sink (which gave us plenty of examples of human drama onboard), the Titanic disaster is only 'memorable' because we keep talking about it.  In other words, we make fun of kids who think the 1997 Titanic film is a work of 100% fiction even while we fail to acknowledge that the only reason most of us know so much about it is because of the various entertainments based around it.  Moreover, it is a perfect example of generational snobbery.  We are stunned and amazed that today's kids don't know about an event that happened 100 years ago.  Well, let's say you're 30, can you tell me everything of importance that happened 115 years ago (that would be 1882)?  We whine about how kids today don't know about World War II, yet how much do most of us really know about World War I (or the already forgotten Korean War)?  We whine that 'kids today' don't know their history, when in fact we're pissed because they don't know their history AND our history.  Yes in a perfect world every American would be an A+-level AP history student who could write a volume of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader all by themselves.  But there is a cultural narcissism at play when we pretend that today's kids are stupid or ill-informed because their historical memories don't stretch back longer than ours.

Moroever it manifests itself  when today's kids are scolded for daring to not know about or like the art that was important to a previous generation. You saw the latter at the Grammys when the blogosphere went nuts after a number of tweets were found of kids wondering "Who is that Paul McCartney guy?".  How DARE today's kids not know about Beatle-mania and have a sincere and profound appreciation for a popular rock band that split up forty-two years ago.  When I was 15, the musicians that were big 42 years prior were uh... Hank Williams, Duke Ellington, and Bing Crosby.  I had to look that up.  Have I heard of those musicians?  Yes, I have.  Could I name you more than one or two of their songs off the top of my head?  Nope.  I know Elvis Presley because he's still kept in the pop-culture, usually as a satirical or mythologized version of himself. I know Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens because I saw The Buddy Holly Story and La Bamba, and because "American Pie" is one of my favorite songs.  Had those three artists not died in a somewhat famous plane crash on February 3rd, 1959, who is to say whether or not they would still be remembered and lionized fifty years later?  Will adults my age really insist that our children worship the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson, or U2 (judging by the last couple seasons of Glee, the answer is sadly 'yes')?  Will the kids of today grow up and become outraged that the kids of tomorrow don't worship at the altar of Kanye West, Taylor Swift, or Coldplay?

If I may use this story as a springboard for a related digression (shocker, I know...), it is this generational narcissism that insists that kids today should care about the same stuff that we cared about.  It is what fosters endless rehashes of the various 1980s properties that we loved when we were kids, forever convinced that they are superior to whatever is in today's marketplace purely by virtue of our own nostalgia.  The older generation always thinks that their music and their books and their movies are superior to the stuff the younger generation enjoys.  Moreover, the older generation always thinks that they grew up in more important or superior times.  It was this cultural snobbery that led Billy Joel to write the song "We Didn't Start the Fire" back in 1989, after a friend told history-buff Joel that he was growing up in uninteresting time.  Yet we the superior ones think nothing of not remembering American history that happened any number of centuries ago while condemning the kids of today for committing the exact same offense.

While a short-fall in historical studies is both an educational problem and arguably a cultural one as well, it's not the be-all/end-all crisis that we might think, provided we (irony alert) remember the recent past.  In short, the people that have done the most harm to this country over the last 15 years were not a bunch of dumb kids sitting at the back of class and ignoring their history teachers. They were (politically-subjective rant alert) the alleged cream of the crop, the alleged foreign policy experts who got us into Iraq and Afghanistan without figuring a way out.  They were the alleged financial wizards who didn't see a problem with selling trillions of dollars worth of pretend money for glorified gambling.  They were a group of fundamentalist zealots who alternate between worshiping a skewed version of Christianity, a somewhat skewed version of the Objectivist teachings of Ayn Rand, and the theocratic anti-tax teachings of the prophet Grover Norquist.  And we can't spend a decade basically castigating intelligent/knowledgeable people as 'out-of-touch' elites and  holding up seemingly less-intelligent people as 'real Americans', with no less than a major presidential candidate blasting the act of attending college as 'snobbish' and then turn around and attack kids for not being properly educated.  We can't spend thirty years systematically attacking and defunding public education and then complain that 'kids today' don't know anything.

Moreover, we as a society have a nasty habit of forgetting really important stuff while obsessing over the trivial or the patronizingly reassuring. We all 'teach' about Helen Keller's struggles to overcome her blindness and deafness, but how often do we hear about her adult years as a 'radical' socialist?  We all know Superman's origins, but how many know that his first comic book adventures (going after corrupt factory owners, domestic abusers, etc) were explicitly left-leaning and socially-progressive in nature (god, I hope that's what Man of Steel is about...).  We care more that kids don't know about the Titanic sinking than we do that kids AND adults know so little about the actual teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (you know... his overt support of organized labor, his belief that America was going to hell due to its lack of social and economic fairness) or know so little about the founding documents that created this country.  Quick... name all ten Bill of Rights.  

There are big problems with this country and big problems with its public educational system.  And frankly most of them have to do less with the educational desires of today's kids and more to do with the resources we allocate in order to properly educate them and/or turn them into valuable members of a democratic society.  But I don't think the (probable) cherry-picking of a dozen or so kids not knowing about a passenger ship that hit and iceberg and sank 100 years ago is all that big of a deal.  Maybe the newest historical textbooks don't have that relatively trivial bit of history in there.  But there are plenty of far-more important historical tidbits that children should learn about before we start caring about a 100-year old maritime disaster.  There may be a dumbing down of America, or perhaps that's in itself a cultural/generational myth designed to make us adults feel inherently superior.  But even if kids aren't learning enough about their own history, there's a painfully easy solution to that.  It's called a library.  Here's the first book I recommend.                

Scott Mendelson


Andrew Robinson said...

You sir are perfectly right. But here in lies the key difference (and this isn't between child and adult, but person to person). It's one thing not to know about something, it's another thing entirely to be proud that you don't know.

Children (and a lot of adults) today seem so happy to be ignorant and then the moment that someone brings up the Titanic (or any other history point) to brush it aside because it's old news that noone cares about and stop you from explaining what it is and why it means something. I read your article and immediately I want to go and read up about Keller's socialist years and even about Lusitania. Maybe I won't be able to write a graduate level thesis on either topic when I'm done skimming wikipedia but I'll have a general idea and be able to talk about it some, and that's enough to make sure that I don't embarass myself if it were ever to come up in conversation.

Yes the articles about these tweets by teens tends to go on the mean side, but at the end of the day I see it a bit of what was being said with Broadcast News, they dont do anything to ruin the world but rather lower our standards bit by bit as we go along.

PS. I have no clue what the 10 Bill of Rights are, but I'm not American.

Alan Worsley said...

I was in the unusual position of having moved from Canada to the US during middle school. So I had done my primary school education in Canada and then jumped into the American school system half way through. What struck me the most, was how POLITICIZED history is in the States, in a way it just wasn't in Canada. In Canada at the time, they were publicly dealing with what the government owed the Native American communities especially in places where 100 year old treaties had been broken. These treaties were taught in schools and it was genuinely felt that the Native Americans had been wronged. So the national conversation was focussed on how we diplomatically settle land disputes when the areas in question are now heavily developed, but claimed by aboriginal communities.

In an American history class (as I learned...) even mentioning the idea that the US may have wronged the native communities, or that 'Manifest Destiny' really meant the destruction of an entire people, was considered heresy. Treatment of Native communities is just an example, but the principal applies for how Americans remember much of their history. I was stunned when a fellow student honestly thought WWII started in December 1941. As a Canadian who had family fighting and dying from 1939 I was a little peeved, however it is also clear to me it was NOT this person's fault, it was how history is taught.

History as it is taught in the US is idealogical. In Canada, and in the UK (where I now live) the average person has no problem admitting that their country has done bad things in the past. Students are taught these things, taught to remember our mistakes as well as our glories. In America...students are taught that America is always right. If there was something America did badly, it is either rewritten or purposefully forgotten. If there was something someone else did well, it was either falsely attributed to the States or it never happened. (According to American school children Thomas Edison apparently invented everything...then ask them who Alexander Graham Bell was, or James Watt).

Worst of all is how the use of history as a tool of propaganda is openly acknowledged. Why else would Republican candidates not only admit to wanting to "do away with the department of education" but actually believe that among their base it is politically expedient. At least one of the major political parties finds it useful that history is taught in this manner and actively court the "low information" voters. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to go to war in Iraq if the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s (and the direct involvement in by most in the Bush administration) was common knowledge. Furthermore, it is much easier to rationalise any action when the entire population is taught from an early age "My country is always in the right". Guantamano and Abu Gharib are met with a collective shrug as everyone collectively accepts the NEW historical truth that waterboarding isn't torture while simultaneously believing that torture is ok anyway.

So, needless to say, I have a slight bone to pick with anyone going around decrying American youth's lack of history. They don't understand history for a reason. It is a reason for which the older generation is responsible, and it is a very real detriment to your country...and not just because they aren't aware the Titanic was real.

Jasons said...

" I'm sure every single one of you who are up-in-arms about this can deliver a five-minute historical report about the sinking of the Lusitania way back in May of 1915. Oh I forgot, nobody made a movie about that one, right?"

Right. Except 'Wreckage'.....
And 'Sinking the Lusitania'.....
And 'Lusitania: Murder on the Atlantic'.......
And, of course, 'Lusitania'

High school dropout boys who can't even use google shouldn't blog.


You have made 644 grammatical errors in this butchering of English you call an article.

Scott Mendelson said...

If you're willing to point out each of the 644 typos, I'll correct each and every one of them. If you'll notice at the top of the page, I explicitly tell my readers to point out any typos or inaccuracies they happen to catch. Thank you for your obviously thorough reading of this essay.

Keath Mayes said...

Titanic being the biggest maritime disaster of all time should know that it was a real ship. Even more so with the centennial upon us. With the age of the internet comes the lack of excuses for teenagers to know facts about the world they live in. Why simply express their ignorance via Twitter when they can simply Google for knowledge?

There isn't an excuse.

Mary Evans said...

Scott, thanks for this most excellent article. One of my Facebook friends linked to it, and I just got around to seeing it today. I'm in total agreement. You posted this on April 11th. Here's what I posted on FB on April 12th:

Yesterday on Facebook, several of my friends shared a collection of Tweets from young people expressing their surprise at learning Titanic was a real ship, and the Titanic disaster was a real disaster. Said FB friends then expressed their dismay over this latest evidence that our educational system is failing miserably. I’ve been thinking about that, and I’m positive that I never – ever – had a test question about the Titanic. (“At what time did Titanic collide with the iceberg?”) When our history textbooks were being written and curricula developed, Titanic (and lots of other things) didn’t make the cut. By the way, I graduated from high school in 1974.

Since 1912, most people have learned about Titanic in pretty much the same way. Someone will publish a book or make a film about the disaster, and it gets people talking about it again. Here’s an article I read yesterday that lays it out pretty well: Popular culture has a lot to do with how people come to know the story of the Titanic.

When I was a kid, I had heard that there was a movie called “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”. My family seldom went to movies in a theater, so I never saw it, and had no idea what it was about. Somewhere along the line, I learned that Titanic was a cruise ship that tragically sank, but it was a long time before I learned any more about it. It may have been The History Channel that gave me the basics about the sinking. (You mean, it sank on its MAIDEN voyage?!!) I think that probably most Baby Boomers learned most of what they know about Titanic from the surge in interest that happened in the 1980s, first with the discovery of the wreckage, and then when James Cameron was making his blockbuster movie. And today’s young people are learning about it now because we’re near the 100th anniversary of the disaster. That’s just the way a lot of information gets passed down, and I find no fault with our educational system or today’s young people because of a previous lack of knowledge about Titanic.

But don’t get me started on 30-somethings who don’t know what the word “dozen” means!

Cindy Manning said...

Pure blather from a blatherskite. This is what comes out when you're trying to fill a page with hot air. Acres more below. Go watch a movie.


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