Sunday, March 14, 2010

Continuing the conversation

Cross-posted in the comments at DconstructingD; responds to D's comment on this post of mine:
Hmm. We seem to be partly talking past each other. The idea that kids are more civic-minded -- or "a generation of polite, smart, civic-minded Kevin Arnolds", is completely besides the point of my argument. The main problem I have is with people justifying their complaints with "it wasn't like this when I was younger" or some such. Your preferences as a consumer, citizen, etc. are perfectly reasonable and I have no particular issue with the things you named. They may not be my preferences in all cases, or my concerns, but I have zero issue with you having them in itself -- it's the idea that in a past age things were simpler or better or more civil that I take issue with. And not even the simple idea that they may have been -- but rather that arguments that things were better are near-uniformly backed up with, not evidence, but anecdotes, assertions and personal memories. I also find the idea that family life was "simpler" rather than full of different problems to be uncompelling; there are a number of added complexities in today's life, but every generation pretty much has faced more complexity than the previous in certain terms; I don't think we can assert a secular progression in the complexity of family life without defining a lot a lot of terms. The proliferation of information and media don't mean life or relationships were less complicated--for example, there are assuredly certain things in life made more simple by not, for example, owning indentured servants or worrying about slave revolts or attacks by the indigenous peoples. We have a complex war on terror, but don't see armies advancing throughout Europe; we have nuclear proliferation, but the risk of nuclear annhilation seems to have decreased from Cold War brinkmanship. We have venereal diseases, but AIDS is no longer a death sentence.

As far as the civic-mindedness of kids these days, I'm not arguing just from personal experience. There actually are several articles (popular and, I think, scholarly, though I don't feel like searching) that have made this argument; indeed, they made it before I believed it. I was equally skeptical. But my students today are quite different than my students 7 years ago, and much much different than my fellow students when I was in school. I vividly remember in the 90s how completely uncool it was to care about anything. This was clearly different than how the 60s and 70s were portrayed, and certainly, the amount of overt political activity on U of M at least decreased dramatically from the 60s to the 90s. I would argue the 90s were more apathetic than usual; some, and FAR from just me (other faculty, as well as several journalists) have argued the pendulum is swinging the other way. As far as I see it, the jury's out, but this isn't my assertion only, it's a number of people's. And it's certainly plausible -- I think the most likely mechanism is that only a minority of people (or kids) are usually politically active at any juncture in history; in the 60s this minority may have swelled to be more significant; during the 90s I would near guarantee that it decreased; there are signs, far from concrete, that it's back on the rise.

It seems like you and I have been talking past each other in our discussions for months now, I don't know why -- your focus wasn't so much on "kids these days" and insofar as it was it was somewhat tongue-in-cheek; my focus wasn't on how kids were objectively better, and I *certainly* never claimed they were uniformly a group of nice Kevin Arnolds (and I firmly remember Dennis the Menace in several incarnations, thank you! :) My larger point is that if one wants to complain about an issue at hand, that's fine and even often laudable/important/necessary; but the assertion that things were better before is both unnecessary and, I think, largely a product of age and not fact. If one wishes to seriously assert that things are qualitatively or quantitatively different, it should require evidence.

My point was that Language Log and other posts have shown that these concerns are perennial, and as they point out in the comments, if it were indeed true that each generation was losing something over the previous generation, then since the complaints heard of insufficient reading and respect to elders in Sumeria, Rome, and Egypt means that, even at some small objective decline of, say, 5% or less per generation, we would now be at approximately 0.01% of the civility or what have you of Rome. The details of whether or not kids or people are more or less civil would require lengthy debate, but I certainly wouldn't argue it's because they're inherently more beneficient--your point that less-racist kids would be a product of their parents' upbringing is, to my mind, clearly a big part of the truth. But the source doesn't affect the existence (or non-existence) of this quality. Kids have mocked each other with racial, sexual, etc. slurs for time immemorial. I don't know that they do it more or less, though perhaps more openly.

Anyway. I don't know why this is the second or third or fourth time we've had a version of a debate where we seem to not be getting each other's points, but I rather enjoyed it more when we were amplifying each other's ideas rather than deconstructing them. It's important to do both, to be sure, but I still prefer the former :) I don't disagree with a number of the things you find bothersome or disturbing, I do on others. As far as this generation, I'm not the first to have thought things are changing among them, nor the only one, and I think the data would back up a change in attitudes, though perhaps not action. I can't make a strong case of this, but as it's based on more than just my own experience, it takes a faint stab at what I'm asking for. I would say that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I need more evidence--just like if I wanted to seriously argue that they are worse. After all, things *do* change, I just think it occasionally behooves us to define what we think is changing and back it up.

Occasionally, but not always, and especially not if the point we're (or you're) making is really something else :)

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