Scott Mendelson, "Why I don't care if today's kids know about the Titanic…" April 16
I SAW Mendelson's piece the other day, shortly after I'd stumbled over my Poor Wife watching the umpteenth recapitulation of the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic, which prompted me, for the umpteenth time, to say, "The boat sinks." Yes, it was a ship. Yes, the illiteracy is intentional. She was watching the History Channel, which, in the most poignant illustration of the degradation of our educational system in the country I know of, her students refer to as "goin' to college". I was reasonably sure that if I stuck around Nostradamus would make his appearance. Or Morgan Robertson, if the producer was a stickler for accuracy. So I didn't.
I think we had a brief conversation about it later, which is how I describe one of my monologues when they're delivered in her presence: "It's not fucking History, it's spectacle, and if it is History it's to the extent that 1) it represents the point at which we took seriously the need for standardization of parts and materials, which hundreds, if not thousands, of rail-accident deaths and boiler-explosion maimings hadn't quite accomplished, since none of them collected any Astors of note; 2) we get an unintended glimpse at how social stratification is really intended to work; and 3) it represents a clear intersection of hubris with the artificial legal limitations of corporate responsibility. Apart from that, I hope the next time James Cameron goes down there someone adds a really big rock to his cargo."
So anyway, I ran across Mendelson's piece, wholly unprepared for the fact that America was somehow up in arms because Twittering Facebook juveniles (but I repeat myself!) don't know that Titanic was a true story.
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.Okay, two things: yes, there's a difference between the historically significant and the detritus of pop culture, but it doesn't actually excuse someone not knowing what th' fuck he's watching, or talking about, even on Twitter. Second, I think I was eight when I opened a Bazooka Joe comic, and somebody says to Joe, "Gee, I wish I was born fifty years ago." "Why?" asks Joe in the second panel. "Because then I wouldn't have to learn so much history!" Which I think caused Joe to sprout an exclamation point over his hat. The purpose of teaching history shouldn't be to catch the youthful up on the frame of reference of their elders, but to teach them about the forces which shaped the world they know little if anything about. I say should, of course, because I've actually seen a high school History text, and what's going on there is something, but History it ain't.
Equating the First World War with Korea as misplaced historical footnotes is part of the problem. The Great War shaped modern geopolitics; it's the reason what those who will not learn from History are condemned to enlisting in the Army. Korea, sure, we can go on and on about the half-literate, half-snake oil of US foreign policy and proxy wars against the Evil Empire, and perhaps we should. But in such an approach WWII will always overshadow its predecessor, and Vietnam will grab the spotlight from Korea. While in terms of analyzing the problem it's probably the other way 'round. Personally, I'd settle for the little bastards learning that WWI means something to them today. We sure as fuck don't say the Mayflower was too long ago to bother with. (And, just as a personal note: Like I care if kids know who Paul McCartney is. But I'd appreciate it if the educational system at least took note of the fact that people find it reasonable that Elvis, with his four-year career of making hits of other people's songs, followed by twenty years of making the worst movies ever filmed, should invade every skull thanks to marketing.)
Anyway, just because I can, Professor Pierce:
It, of course, began to happen in the 1960's, when the Democrats allied themselves with the civil-rights movement and lost the South and those parts of the North where people thought the South had a point. But it really accelerated in the 1970's, when the Democratic party overreacted to what happened to George McGovern and began whoring after corporate money, an effort that required them to abandon at least partly their traditional allies in the civil-rights and labor movements, and to soften their positions on a number of important issues, and basically inculcated into the party a permanent instinct for accommodation and surrender that was only strengthened after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The rise of the Democratic Leadership Council was, in its own way, one of the largest white flags in the history of American politics. In fact, one of the most dismal weekends of my life came at the 1982 Democratic "Mid-Term" Convention, where it became plain that great progressives like the late Billie Carr of Texas were no longer welcomed by the party's serious people. At that point, the Republican fringe was empowered by the simple fact that there now was no political entity pushing back at them with a force equal to theirs in the opposite direction. At the very least, the Democrats could be counted upon to give them some of what they wanted, at which point they would scream and holler and nobody noticed that the "Center" was drifting in their direction. And when they overreached — the Clinton Impeachment, Schiavo, the entire Bush presidency — they didn't have to regroup. I've often used Stalin's order to the Red Army to describe this — Ni shagu nazad: Not one step backwards — and it's true. They fight like they do not care what happens to the country either way. They fight as though they don't care if they burn their party down. The Democrats fight like they care about both things. The Democrats stopped taking risks 30 years ago. Faced with nihilism, they reach for the olive branch, which is generally sent back to them in ashes.Events which predate today's high schooler by almost the exact same amount the First World War and its aftermath preceded my own public education. Subtraction is for math class.