Tuesday, December 2, 2003

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A first for me

On the flight to Philadelphia, I experienced a first -- I read an article in an "airline" magazine that I actually thought was interesting -- "Who Knows" by Bruce Anderson, in US Airways Attaché magazine. The essay is about the "transiense of generational knowledge." The opening paragraphs:

What was I to make of the half-dozen editors and interns sitting around a conference table saying that they had never heard of Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees”? Should I have considered them lucky or illiterate? These folks, about half my staff, were all smart, well-traveled, and college-educated. Tellingly, they were also all under 35.

The travel magazine that I edit was developing a photo essay on famous Western trees. The sparse text that accompanied the piece began, perhaps too predictably, with a nod to Kilmer’s 12-line paean, a poem once so familiar to so many. The tree-huggers and arboriphobes on my staff divided exactly by age, as though Kilmer’s poetic chestnut had been a birthright accorded only to those born before, say, 1968.

It turns out that the year you were born may be a more important factor in what you know than the schools you attended or which side of the tracks you were born on. The generation gap is less about attitude and more about cultural points of reference, less about how long you like your hair or how short your skirts and more about whether you identify the Kennedy tragedy as something to do with the president or with his son.

Twenty-five years ago, this concept of generational knowledge was distilled down to a joke about a kid who is sifting through the bins at Tower Records and announces, “I didn’t know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings.” Today, that story just raises the question of why they call your favorite music store Tower Records.

I don't agree with Anderson's conclusions, but it's still worth a look -- and how many times can you say that about an airline magazine?

posted by Dan on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM


A bit harsh about "Trees"; Ezra Pound described it as "Blakean", and it is.

posted by: dsquared on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

This article reminds me of a 2 semester course on Shakespeare I took in college (1982). We had one Drama major (aka suckup) who was constantly asking the professor what he thought of this or that production of the play we were currently studying. When we started Hamlet, some smartass (OK, me) asked for the prof's opinion of the Herald Hecuba production. We actually spent the rest of that day discussing it.
Too many people look at things in isolation. A society's culture is a blend, an almagam of many things ranging from the silly to the sublime. Those aspects which are timeless and worthy will survive through the ages, even if comtemporary references are sometimes eccentric.

posted by: Glenn C on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

Here's a random one for ya....

How many Americans 24 and under would recognize Johnny Carson if they ran into him on the street?

(Talk about falling into a crack in the earth....)

posted by: Andrew X on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

Now how many people 35+ could identify Mario or Pacman? Gaps are two-way streets.

posted by: Josh on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

The article certainly does acknowledge that it's a two-way street-- there's an anecdote about an older editor getting confused about a reference to Bob Marley in an article, asking the whole newsrooms what Dickens had to do with the story.

It was a fairly interesting article, even though I also disagreed with parts. Thought-provoking.

posted by: John Thacker on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

An interesting article, indeed. But it´s amazing how journalists manage to create a "theory" using just some appealing pop culture/literature examples. Althought wee could all add a thousand examples to the article ones, intergenerational gap is just another issue to take into account for explainig differencies among people, and probably not the most important. But that´s what journalism is all about: exploring all the sides of an issue, each one in a different article!!

posted by: Erasmo Lopes on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

Erasmo - friend of mine in the business says the same:

They've got to keep the ads from bumping into each other.

posted by: John Rebus on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

When I was at ESPN, I worked with a lot of people in their early 20's. One day, we were talking about Steve Martin, and I mentioned his "Let's Get Small" routine. They looked at me astonished, and one of them said, "Steve Martin did standup?"

posted by: David Pinto on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

Now how many people 35+ could identify Mario or Pacman?

Lots. 35 isn't the cutoff for that bit of knowledge -- I'm 37, and I spent many hours and quarters on Mario, Pacman, Galaxian, Asteroids, etc. at the local bowling alley when I was a teenager.

I was also aware of Joyce Kilmer and "Trees", although I only knew the first two lines, and for the longest time I assumed the author was a woman.

posted by: KenB on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

Updated versions of the joke:

You mean the Shining Time station guy used to be in a BAND???

Jakob Dylan's dad used to sing too???

posted by: arthur on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

Who's Steve Martin? Will Farrell I know, but Steve Martin?

posted by: teamcanada on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

My favorite McCartney-type blind spot:

I was in a supermarket once and saw two kids pick up a carton of Paul Newman's lemonade. One kid said, "My mom told me that he used to make movies." They both agreed that she had been trying to fool him.

posted by: Jeff on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

This probably matters more than we realize, in ways that are hard to understand.

I have been struck by the fact that for several hundred years the best and the brightest knew greek and latin and a good knowledge of the classics. Of course, that is unimaginable now.

Were those people of the 18th and 19th century different from us? If so,in what ways? How much of the difference is due to a classical education?

I haven't a clue. But I expect it is very relavent to the difference between a generation raised on print and a generation raised on CRT's

posted by: bob mcmanus on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

This is relevant to the thread, trust me. Has anyone seen the Cartoon Network show "Samurai Jack?" This show rocks. The other night I'm watching it with my son (6) who loves computer games like Civilization and Age of Mythology. Anyway, this episode basically retells the Battle of Thermopolae, with Greek warriors (and timetravelling Jack) marching into battle against weird futuro-battlebots. And the thought occurs to me: every generation gets a watered down version of the classics, then (if they dig a bit deeper) eventually discover the real thing. I don't think this is so different from generations past. They're young. Give them time.

posted by: Kelli on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

I blogged about this topic a few weeks ago, with regard to the military having to relearn the same lessons on helicopter operations that we learned in Vietnam. I also pointed out the same disfunction in the fire service. Firefighters generally die in the exact same ways that they did a hundred years ago.

Losing Kilmer is sad, but not fatal. Losing other hard-learned lessons is fatal to folks, and that bothers me. It's like there's an intervention in the knowledge stream by folks that don't value the past, and the stream has to reset itself after each "glitch". History, military, political, cultural, religious, matters.

posted by: Chuck on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

“I don’t know what they’re reading in high school, because they don’t get literary references,” McCallum says. “The Great Gatsby, for example, drew a blank except for one student. And they don’t know plays—Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams. But young kids, because of Nickelodeon and TV Land, have a real grasp of TV shows. Frighteningly, it’s hard to stump them on ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ and ‘The Real McCoys’.”

There is no doubt that one’s age determines their points of reference. This is to be inevitably expected and there is nothing to be ashamed about. However, there is indeed something wrong when young kids know virtually everything concerning “The Beverly Hillbillies” and draw a blamk when one mentions some of the best play writers in our nation’s history. I got a small secret for you: it’s not all relative!

posted by: David Thomson on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

Who's Paul McCartney?

posted by: Kid these days on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

The US Airways inflight magazine has worthwhile stuff in it with surprising frequency. It's really in a class by itself as those publications go.

posted by: JohnL on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

I would have expected that in a group of technical people, but not in a group of journalists - even young ones - whose life's work is supposed to be reading and writing.

In the old days, a liberal education meant being acquainted with the classics and the Western Canon.

Pick up a book of Thoreau's essays (remember Walden? No, Garry Trudeau didn't write that one); they're full of classical references. As is much of the writing of the 18th & 19th centuries.

I can certainly understand not being familiar with George Gissing, but Joyce Kilmer should be remembered, because he was American, and because he was a soldier in WW I (where he was killed in action) and left behind a small body of great stuff.

posted by: Mike on 12.02.03 at 05:03 PM [permalink]

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