Monday, July 4, 2011

What are We Celebrating Again?

by Julia Buckley
According to the list of 4th of July facts here, 1/4 of Americans answering a Marist poll did not know the name of the country from which we won our independence on July 4th.

I suppose it can't be avoided--that gradual evolution of a great event into something (for some) of no importance at all. But for me it also raises questions about one of America's greatest rights: the right to an education. Like everything that is free, knowledge can be taken for granted. My teacher colleagues who have taught in far-off lands could not believe how grateful those students were for education; how rooms full of 60 and 70 students would sit in absolute silence, hanging on every word out of their instructor's mouth, because this was their only chance at education.

And while many American students (including mine) are respectful of both education and teachers, I'm sure all teachers, at one point or another, have experienced one of THOSE classes--the ones with students who mock the very idea of education, reading, homework--and who take for granted the very gifts which America has guaranteed them.

Why would they do it? For one, they are assaulted by media images of young people who are oversexed and undereducated. They are fed the visual rhetoric that teen moms and porn stars are the new American heroes, and that fame is necessary for self-esteem ("fame" being a nebulous term which includes being on television for any reason). They are given this shallow, un-nourishing diet of pap, and if they are not given the analytical tools, they will think that this is the world and that these people are what they themselves should be.

"Reality" tv is nothing like reality, and an uncareful viewer might not see the neediness, the narcissism, the affectation and posturing. And unless that viewer occasionally read a book, he or she might not realize how poorly these television stars speak and think.

Remember this footage of poor Miss Teen South Carolina?

Not only can she not explain why Americans can't recognize their own country on a world map, but she can't string together a coherent sentence. But somewhere along the line she was swayed by the visual rhetoric of pretty hair and make-up, of fakery and feigned composure, and by the idea that if it looks good, it must be good.

She's not the only one. Check out this blog, which reveals that more American teens can name the Three Stooges than can name the three branches of government.

No, I'm not trying to depress people on the 4th of July. I am suggesting, though, that the date will cease to have any meaning unless we continue to invest it with some, and to demand more from our cultural representatives in all forms of media.

Let's celebrate America by asking Americans to think--something our founding fathers did very well.


Sheila Connolly said...

In a universe far, far away (all right, a private school in New Jersey), we ate up Johnny Tremain and Washington Crossing the Delaware. So help me, a friend and I used to act out fantasies about a pair of brothers who fought in the Revolutionary War (okay, we were a little weird). But history seemed more immediate then, and not just because the past was a little closer. Maybe it makes a difference if you live in the midst of where our early history happened, as I do now.

One other point: the makers of so-called reality television really expect us to believe that what we see is true? There's a bleeping camera person (or several) in the room, people! How spontaneous is that?

Julia Buckley said...

Not spontaneous at all. I don't understand the entire trend, except how seemingly destructive it is.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Well said, Julia. And what are teens reading? One of the big trends in YA fiction right now is dystopian--stories set in futures in which things have gotten worse. In the bestselling Hunger Games trilogy, 12 to 16 year olds chosen by lot are forced to fight each other to the death on national TV. It's a modern take on Theseus and the Minotaur--but only if you can read. And an awful warning of what could happen if present trends continue--but only if you can think.

Sandra Parshall said...

Children and teenagers are also reading vampire novels and books about wizardry and magic -- stories that have absolutely nothing to do with the real world they live in. Kids today seem cut off from reality in so many ways. A lot of people say, "Well, let's just be grateful they're reading" -- but *what* they're reading should also be a concern.

Julia Buckley said...

An interesting link to fiction. And YA like your own historical novel, Liz, would be a wonderful way for young people to learn and be entertained at the same time.

Sandra, this is so interesting, because I was just reading yesterday that a psychologist who testified at the Casey Anthony trial suggested that all of her lies could be due to "magical thinking" which young people sometimes use (I guess) after they've suffered trauma.

Maybe she's just a liar?

Jeri Westerson said...

About kids and fiction. Here's a quote that might bring of the conversation back to some semblance of perspective.
“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.”

That is a quote from the Greek poet Hesiod, in 700 BC. You see, nothing ever changes. Before we jump on the "everything is going to hell" band wagon, I like to look to history to see what has gone before. Well, it's ALL gone before. Nothing new under the sun. And that's from Ecclesiastes.

Diane said...

Well, Jeri, except 'reality' tv. That is new. And, frankly, something I just don't get. Well - the popularity I don't get. The reason behind it I do: cheaper for the networks to broadcast. They're not having to pay writers and actors.

Julia Buckley said...

Yeah, the reality tv trend is beyond my ken. And I don't like the people that kids are choosing as their heroes.