how do I use a payphone – can I just put a quarter in and achieve a dialtone
Such was the Instant Message I got from my college junior one recent evening on my laptop. I won’t dwell on how close I was to typing back, all in caps, “What!? You don’t know how to use a pay phone?” and then engaging in a tedious lecture about the misplaced cell, all the while congratulating myself about how cool I am, parenting via IM.
I won’t rant about the cluelessness of an entire generation about a piece of equipment that’s as familiar as a toothbrush to anyone over forty. And I won’t wring my hands about how kids don’t read directions anymore and how civilization must therefore be ending.
Instead, let me describe what it feels like not to have the pay phone in common with my college-aged sons.
It’s the same way I feel lonely that, not having taken Latin in high school, my boys don’t know how to parse de gustibus non est disputandum. The same way I feel lonely that they didn’t devour the four Salinger books as teenagers. That they don’t want to listen to a Bach cantata—or Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints, for that matter—while doing the dishes.
It’s so easy to find evidence that our kids don’t know enough. They don’t have the same skills we do, read fewer books than we did, and are easily distracted by things that strike us as unimportant. While we’re aware that cultural literacy is constantly evolving to accommodate and embrace change, we tend to assume we know what constitutes the basics. We’re alarmed that so many disadvantaged kids fall through the cracks in school—and that even the fortunate ones just don’t know what we knew at their age.
But to what extent does our gnashing of teeth reflect genuine concern that our kids are missing crucial information or life skills? And to what extent does it mask our own future shock (things are moving too fast!), or perceived personal failings (I didn’t teach him enough!), or sadness over the erosion of something collective that connects us? It’s not a simple matter to sort out.
I’m not suggesting that cultural literacy is entirely subjective. Young people need to master the math tables, memorize geographical data, and savor and analyze great literature. They need to grasp the importance of the individual vote and know how to decode a newspaper article. Without these basics, kids are sent out into the world at a disadvantage, both objectively and in terms of self-esteem.
But that doesn’t mean we can claim pure moral superiority, or even pure pessimism, when our kids fall short. We may well shriek if they haven’t read The Great Gatsby. Yet we shriek in an eerily similar tone if they don’t get the reference when we quote Eddie Haskell to illustrate smarm (“Good afternoon, Mrs. Cleaver—my, what a lovely dress you have on”). That we’re similarly exasperated in either case suggests to me that something more complicated is at stake than our kids’ knowledge base.
Core literacy allows one to live a more textured, aware life and improves one’s prospects. But it’s also about being part of a narrative that connects all of us, generation to generation, even as it shifts under our feet. I want the narrative to permanently include Crime and Punishment and West Side Story and pay phones, and if it doesn’t, I want to express my disorientation and alienation by kicking and screaming for awhile. Then I want to buckle down to work bridging the gap as best I can, with my sons’ help.
Truth is, I still don’t know how to display a photo on my cell.
Published in the Piedmont Post, January 20, 2010