20 April 2010

The Very High Cost of Nostalgia

"“The Tea Party is saying, ‘We’re tired of this, you guys caused this, and if we don’t wake up to this, the American dream we’ve talked about since the ’50s will die,’ ” said Jeff McQueen, a Tea Party organizer in Rochester, Mich., who was laid off from his job in international sales for an auto parts company. “Things we had in the ’50s were better. If a mom wanted to work, she could, if she didn’t, she didn’t have to. Tell me how many mothers work now? Now it’s a necessity.”

"Mr. McQueen is 51 — born into the 1960s, not the ’50s. But he is not alone among Tea Party supporters in his conviction that something has been taken away from him." - New York Times

Yes, the glorious United States of the 1950s. Surely it was all good back then, unless, of course, you were female, or black ("negro"), or Catholic or Jewish, or disabled, or poor. Or, if you were young.

Of course we know that American "tea partiers" (even they seem to have discovered that "teabaggers" wasn't the right term) are as weak in the history department as they are on economics knowledge, but they are hardly alone in their belief in some wondrous mythical past...

Twice this year I've been in Twitter discussions centering around comparing today's schools and/or students with those of the past. In one a Twitter pal insisted British Education Minister Ed Balls was wrong to insist that British schools are now better than they have ever been. British parents, in a survey, said that wasn't true. Maybe, maybe not, but it seems as if those parents who think that school "was better back then" would have no hope of passing today's exit exams. So - perhaps - what they think is happening, isn't quite happening.

I asked this question: If schools are not "at their best" now, when were they? 1840s? 1960s? 1980s? 1890s? 1920s? 1940s? When, exactly, was the "peak" of British education? And why was that the peak?

oh, this must be Brit education at its peak, those wonderful 1960s...

...and for America, it was the fabulous fifties...

Yesterday, a group on Twitter began to wonder about whether today's students were "lazier" than those of the past. I hear this a lot. They are lazier, more "entitled," they learn less, they expect teachers to cater to them. "In that sense I agree with Adar that we now have a generation of lazy students who expect instant results with little effort on their part," was one blog comment pointed at.

And I thought back to my father. Back in the 1960s, when people criticized those students (the very students now criticizing today's students), he would point out that "in his day" only about a third of kids even went beyond the American eighth grade (or its Brit equivalent), essentially, he noted, the same group of kids still doing "pretty well" in High Schools in the 1960s.

In 1940 75% of Americans lacked high school diplomas, and 27% of American teens in 1940 would never even enroll in a high school, much less finish. At the end of World War II about 50% of American teens were graduating from high school, though only a part of that was getting any kind of academic education. This made the US the "best educated nation in the world."

Obviously, I would argue, having looked at a lot of old textbooks, that these students were hardly facing what we'd now call a "challenging curriculum." Yes, they were working with lots of rote memorization, which must have been brutal, but even in that, there were less states, less nations, fewer atomic elements, much less math and science, a much smaller literary canon. OK, one more planet, but about a hundred billion fewer known stars. The universe of knowledge, of even necessary operational knowledge, was so much smaller that if kids today could conceive of this, they'd feel completely abused.

But that's not the point. Nostalgia, whether in the hands of a frustrated tea partier who imagines the world was perfect before he was born, or in the hands of a parent or educator who imagines that schools and students were perfect "once upon a time," is extremely dangerous.

We saw this in the American South this month when Governors Bob McDonnell (Republican-Virginia) and Haley Barbour (Republican-Mississippi) "forgot" about slavery in their fond reminisce about the Confederacy of 1861-1865.  We see it daily in schools when students using today's tools are accused of being lazy - or cheating. We see it in our assumptions that since our children don't read newspapers they are somehow less informed than previous generations.

And when we make these nostalgic assumptions we demean and we endanger, while we lose our opportunity to impact either the present or the future.

None of this is new. The American Civil War itself was a nostalgia-fest tragedy. Southern political leaders, then as now, told poorly educated audiences that a northern "black" president was going to create some kind of change which would damage the "utopia" they had always lived in (a place with 90% of people in abject poverty or - yeah - much worse). "Old times there are not forgotten" as the song says (seven states seceded before Lincoln became president, they were not reacting to any actual event).

I hear this same refrain in schools every day.

Yes, it sounds funny, and pathetic, to us when Glenn Beck and his Tea Party Troopers mourn for an era when women were not welcome at most elite universities, when old people ate cat food to divert their food budget to medicine, when black people were prevented from voting, when cars were environment-wrecking death traps without seatbelts, when doctors promoted cigarettes to kids on television, when being poor meant you lacked a refrigerator, and - most amusingly - when the government and government-approved monopolies controlled all radio, tv, and telephones.

But so should it seem ridiculous when we act as if mobile phones introduced cheating and drug use into schools.

Or that we imagine that "way back when" all of our students were perfect, and all of us - as children - respected our teachers, our mothers and fathers, the cop on the beat, the flag (or the Queen) and God. Or that we all went home everyday, ate cookies with a tall glass of milk, and finished our homework before going out to play.

Or that the computer brought us plagiarism, or that video games brought inappropriate content and violence, or that sex on television causes teenage sex.

Or, to put it in basic terms, that we can create rules about technology or behavior, bans and zero tolerances, which will somehow restore an Edenic past which never existed.

It can not, because that past never existed. Schools were not just awful in the old days, they lost the vast majority of their students before kids were sixteen. Lessons were horrifically boring and geared to a tiny percentage of children. Those with wealth and power avoided public schools then, as they do now. Kids were physically abused and grew up to be abusive adults. Teachers were underpaid and poorly trained and had little access to resources, and no time for staff collaboration. Special Ed kids were locked away or kept out of school entirely. Non-white kids were sent to separate schools which often lacked everything. Girls took "Home Ec" and were shunted off to "Business English" so they could become secretaries.

Who wouldn't want to re-create those good ol' days?

When we pretend that perfect past existed we do real harm - politically, economically, educationally. When Republicans say that America's poor are better off than the poor most everywhere, nostalgia prevents us from remembering that it was only Lyndon Johnson's "big government" Great Society which made that true. When we think of the 1950s in the US as an economic "golden age" it prevents us from remembering even that the prosperity was based on massive federal spending which fueled a huge inflation rate that discounted debt for the middle class but which crushed the poor and elderly. And when we think of school as "perfect" back then we forget that the result of that system was that most students dropped out to go work at factories.

And all of this false memory prevents us from moving forward, stops us from finding new solutions, blocks us from embracing those who need help now - including our own children.

In schools everywhere our nostalgic blinders criminalize childhood, keep essential tools away from our students, and lead us to treat our children as alien failures. It is a very cruel, very costly, self-deception.

So let's stop looking backward through rose colored glasses. And let's begin to look forward by looking at our needs now. Measuring ourselves against a false view of the past gets us nowhere.

- Ira Socol


Wm Chamberlain said...

Instead of longing for the "good ole days" we should be reaching for the promise of tomorrow. Transparency and accountability will help lead us to a much better future than the past ever promised.

concretekax said...

I would add from an economic perspective the U.S. benefited from a devastated Europe and Japan from WWII and had a virtual monopoly in the world market while those countries rebuilt their infrastructure. The U.S. will never (hopefully) have that kind of advantage again.

History can be powerful to learn from, but unfortunately it can also be twisted to fit almost any agenda.

Raymond Johnson said...

Incredibly well said, Ira. Just because a system needs continued improvement doesn't mean it isn't the best it's ever been.

Peter Hilts said...

Ira, the substance of your article is good, as usual. But this statement

Of course we know that American "tea partiers" (even they seem to have discovered that "teabaggers" wasn't the right term)

early on is not just disrespectful, its either intellectually lazy (I highly doubt), an intentional smear (also doubtful) or something I can't discern.

Are you suggesting that people in the Tea Party called themselves "Teabaggers?" If so, I'd like you to reference an instance. Otherwise you are criticizing people for the smear that others applied to them—which is beneath you. You're better and smarter than that so I call foul.

Unknown said...


You know I don't think "it" is good now, I just want us to go forward, not backward.


Yes, it is a cheap shot, though based in all the "tea bag" imagery favored by the crowd. And it is a cheap shot at a group that relies almost entirely on cheap shots.

Does that make it justified? Perhaps not. But people who spit on Barney Frank and other members of Congress aren't on my list of those I worry about offending.

Yet, foul called. Point taken.

- Ira

Unknown said...

Thanks for this great post. It has beefed up my arguments about schools in the past, and how there is no way that they could serve the population as a group today.