By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
On the first day of all my history courses, I attempt to dispel my students’ romanticization of the past. This may sound strange to people who assume that “kids today” don’t respect the past, but I don’t find that to be the case at all. In fact, I think most Americans, college students included, respect the past, or at least the past that has been constructed for them by pop culture, the media, and politicians. Most of the time, Hollywood, 24 hour news programs, and US Senators portray history as romantic, simplified, and heroic. “The Good ol’ Days” are lionized as a simpler, more understandable time that has been lost. Through this lens, history appears to move in a negative, regressive direction. Though this stance is most often associated with conservatives, the idea that history is regressing touches all political sides. Everyone can discover a past Golden Age that fits their modern ideologies.
Most of my students don’t necessarily think in these political terms when it comes to history, but the vast majority believe that society is regressing. To them, times are worst than they have ever been. Social levels of violence are purportedly unique; human communication is disintegrating; Americans are lazier than ever. Though young themselves, these students interestingly see historical regression most clearly in “kids these days”. I have had 18 year old students tell me that their 12 year old siblings don’t know how to form relationships because of cell phones and video games. Obviously, 30 somethings similarly complain about college kids. 60 somethings say the same about 30 somethings. And on and on we go.
If history is regressing, then it only makes sense that the past must have been superior. I believe this notion reached its apogee in the 1990′s, when the so-called baby-boomers lionized their own parents, dubbing them the “Greatest Generation” in pop-culture and mass media outlets. The narrative went like this: “The Greatest Generation” was superior to all who came after not only because they fought WWII, and survived the Depression, but that they did so with nary a complaint. They were marked by determination, resilience, and stoicism. Of course, it became inevitable to ask, “What happened to those who came next?” How could American society produce the WWII generation, and then spawn these “kids today”? By painting with such a broad brush, the creators of the “Greatest Generation” ideal simplified and heroicized complex individuals who fought, died, and experienced WWII, while also smearing those who came after.
But, wait a minute! My reader may be thinking, “the WWII generation was more stoic than people today. They did face hardships, and endured them. Plus, in many ways, the past is superior to the present.” You are correct on all counts. No one could believe that history has not regressed in some areas of life. That is indisputable. But, the problem is that lionizing the past in order to compare it to a supposedly distasteful present spawns historical tunnel vision. We miss two important truths when we do this: First, the complex continuity between the past and present events, ideas, and movements is censured by this tunnel vision. Second, lionization spotlights regression, while ignoring progression (of course, this depends on how we define both terms). To ignore one for the other is disingenuous. “The Greatest Generation” was most definitely patriotic; perhaps more so than “kids these days”. For many, this is regression. That being said, “The Greatest Generation” also largely accepted their society’s racial bigotry and misogyny with little critique. It was up to their hippie children to fight these injustices. For most, this is progression. Forgetting such complexities leads to the construction of a falsified past composed of simplified Utopian heroes.
“Golden Age, Schm-olden Age” then, will be a series of posts that I will come back to now and again to display the continuities of the past with the present, and to expose such wrongheaded romanticized history. In doing so, I will not be judging the past so much as critiquing domineering attempts to gloss the past as something far superior than the present. I don’t know how often I will write these posts, though I hope they will be entertaining.
(Next Monday, First Installment: Ancient Roman Graffiti)