Posts Tagged ‘“Golden Age Schm-olden Age”’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.


In my ‘Comparative Worldviews’ class, I enjoy asking my students if they think the story of humanity is one of progression, or decline.  A simple, but incredibly broad question to be sure.  Usually students will reply with some excellent nuanced answers, pointing out that such a simple dualistic question glosses over the complexities of our modern world.  Most point out that humanity has progressed, and continues to progress in areas such as medicine, science and technology.  Though surrounded by it their whole lives, my students appreciate how quickly technology is advancing. However, some rightly point out that progression in one area of life, can lead to decline in another.  It may be surprising to those who don’t interact with ‘millennials’ on a daily basis, but I find that most students feel that the progression of information and communication technology they have lived through has had radically negative social repercussions.

The above staged photo encapsulates the problem my students have with information technology.  I have heard the majority of young adults I teach argue that, though modern, handheld computers provide us a deluge of instantaneous information, they are ‘also killing human interaction’.  In this belief, they are by no means alone.  It is almost becoming a cliche to state that cell-phones, texting, social media and constant internet access drives a wedge between humans, causing all sorts of existential threats. Texting causes a loss of spelling and grammar rules! Cellphones destroy interpersonal communication! Social media increases the opportunities for lying and narcissism! Cell phones destroy human empathy!   Humanity is evidently doomed if we keep going down the road we are travelling.

And yet….let’s look at a couple more pictures.


Two elderly couples reading newspapers

Now, what do you think of when you look at these two photographs?  I am going to make an assumption about your conclusions.  These pictures provide generally positive emotions, correct?  The photo of the young couple enjoying a leisurely read outdoors  seems relaxing, and romantic.  The picture on the right, with the two elderly couples, has a timelessly quaint aura.   Perhaps these husbands and wives have had this ritual of sitting on a park bench, reading the daily newspaper for years, if not decades.  What could be more traditional; what could be more human?

These two photos are the antithesis of the top photo, right?

Not at all. These three pictures are more similar than different. Two people sitting at a table on their separate smartphones is wholly similar to the old couples sitting on a the bench reading their respective papers. All of these people are socially isolated with an individually hand-held communication tool. What difference is there if the loving pair in the grass have a couple novels, or a couple iPhones?  The quality of their reading material may be the only thing; and even then, with e-readers, this may not even be the case.  Both are lost in another world, one digital, the other paper-based.

And, yet, we do see a difference; on an emotional, visceral level, it just seems different.  But, why? Why is the first photo seen as dangerous and distasteful for the future health of all humanity, while the second is sweet, charming and heartwarming?  When I asked my students this question, one young woman stated that texting requires technology, and hence, the top picture is different.

But, wait!  Books are a technology as well.   The written word itself, is a technology.  Neither are natural; they are both human cultural inventions. Mass produced, hand- held books are only 500 or so years old.  The written word is about 10 times older. Over the centuries, these technologies have changed, but usually quite slowly; this change has seemed organic, and glacial to someone living in our times of radical technological advancements.   But, go back to any year before Gutenberg’s press, and you will discover a world of communication that is almost unrecognizable. After the radical invention made books a mass-produced commodity, you will find ‘Chicken Littles’ predicting doom as a result.  Such warnings were even applied to the written word. Plato tells us that Socrates, who never wrote anything down, warned that the written word was dangerous since it,

will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

I assume that in 50 years, if cellphones are still with us, pictures such as the one found at the top of this post will be seen as quaint and charming. There will undoubtedly be a new communication technology invented that will be blamed for the inevitable fall of all human interaction, or Western Civilization….or something. I kind of can’t wait to see wait to see that new technology.


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 old-daysprograms, 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)