"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