by Daniel A. Kaufman
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.
According to one piece of conventional wisdom, of which Dylan’s lyric is among the more effective and literate expressions, as each generation passes into its middle and old age, it bemoans what has come after. Things are going to shit! Young people today are [fill-in your favorite disparaging characterization]. On this view, the last people you’d want to ask whether things are getting better or worse are those who are older than 40.
Of course, there is another piece of conventional wisdom that points in the opposite direction; that with age comes insight that can only be born of experience. John Stuart Mill maintained that in order to be a competent judge of which of two pleasures is better, one must have experienced both, and with regard to our times, every person over a certain age has experienced the relevant “both,” namely, previous eras and the current one. On this view, it is precisely those over 40 to whom one must turn, if one is to get a sense of our current times and whether they represent progress or regress.
This year, I will be 51 years old, so my conscious experience includes the decades spanning the 1970’s to our present day, and in a number of significant ways, I believe that the times (in the developed world) are getting worse, rather than better. One reason for this negativity is the transformation in the personalities and habits of my students that I have witnessed over two and a half decades of college teaching. Another is the front-row seat I’ve had from which to view contemporary childhood and adolescence, in a run-of-the-mill, suburban, Midwestern town (courtesy of my daughter). I’ve already written quite a bit about this aspect of my dislike for our times; the anger I feel over the ways in which we have systematically destroyed the experience of being young in America.‡
But there’s more to it than this; something less definite and more difficult to pin down. A common thread running through what would appear to be a series of unrelated elements that come in glimpses; impressions; and sudden realizations. Finding a website devoted to the bygone Yorkville neighborhood of New York and thinking about how the Czech and Hungarian and German restaurants in which my parents and I used to eat have all evaporated into a fog of wannabe nouvelle cuisine style establishments, inflected with the current “artisanal” fashion. Wading through the toxic swamp that is the contemporary conversation on social justice and noticing that in contrast with earlier, more traditional civil rights discourse, the ideas of a common humanity and of meaningful differences between people and peoples have become mutually antagonistic. Recalling the famous Borg/McEnroe fourth set tiebreaker at Wimbledon and lamenting the fact that the tennis I once loved, whose small, wooden rackets and disparate surfaces demanded a skillful, tactical playstyle, has been transformed into a numbingly dull game defined overwhelmingly by fitness and racquet and string technology, in which gameplay has devolved into baseline ball-bashing, regardless of surface. (At my suggestion, my current 26 year old coach and I have taken up playing with wooden racquets, and he has noted that it is an entirely different game.) Reading our own C.J Uberroth’s essay, “Bring Back the Slide Rule” and reflecting on the fact that our use of labor-saving devices has brought us to the point at which we can no longer estimate, calculate, spell, write grammatically, or even write at all (college students’ handwriting today resembles my grade school penmanship, back in the early 1970’s). Looking at pictures of my grandmother (who died in 2004) and meditating on the fact that as a child, I had a more substantial relationship with her by way of a single annual visit and monthly telephone conversations, across two continents and a significant language barrier, than I do with my living friends and relatives, through social media, today. Watching the kids in Stranger Things riding their bikes through their neighborhood at night, on their own, without helmets, and realizing that no kid has done this for decades or ever will again.
These elements point towards a bland homogenization, despite never-ending paeans to diversity; an erosion of enriching distinctions, in the name of an empty equality; a reduction of things to simple, generic elements, at the expense of sophistication and talent; a degradation of crucial capacities and skills, for the purpose of further reducing our already minimal labor; a profound and devastating de-socialization, in pursuit of a shallow, commercialized brand of connectedness; and the cultivation of a sense of fragility and fear, at a time when we are the safest we’ve ever been. What they represent is not the advancement but the diminishment of human life and experience, and rather than calling to mind the vibrant, new generation, on whose behalf Dylan’s song was written, they are evocative instead of the evolutionary dead-ends who populate H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, the Eloi, with their wispy, insubstantial beauty, insipid agreeability, infantile intelligence and personality, and ultimate instrumentality.
I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide. It had set itself steadfastly towards comfort and ease, a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword, it had attained its hopes—to come to this at last.
†From the song, “The times, they are a-changin’.” (1964)
‡‡ The Time Machine. (1895)