Now that I’ve given a bit of a biographical background so you know “where I’m coming from” (a phrase unknown to me growing up), I would like to go back and look at societal changes. My emphasis will be to combat the view that there has been some sort of huge shift creating a different and less pleasant, less able America.
Here’s what confronts us when we try to explain what’s happening in our schools and in our society at large: powerful voices paint a picture of a past that never was and then measures today against that past. Whether it’s human nature or ignorance, a lot of people fall for that, even people who are old enough to remember the imaginary past that’s being evoked.
I’ve labeled this entry “culture” but “society” would be closer. I am going to further bias my presentation by trying to tell only what I’ve experienced. Once we get into research, we open it all up to various interpretations. I want to just talk about what I know personally.
Nevertheless, books do present us with information to chew on and one I like is The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coon. Others I intend to read are Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, The Fifties by the late David Halberstam, and many others. Putnam turns out to be a guy I went to school with and the picture on the flap of Bowling Alone was taken in front of my uncle’s bowling alley. Bob Putnam and I exchanged e-mails and we agree it would be fun to get together with another kid from Port Clinton he ran into and talk about what the town was like for each of us. Bob and I are White and Billy is Black. Billy was from a military family and I believe Bob was middle-class; I was working-class.
So just the three of us with experiences in the same little Ohio town would probably come up with different perceptions. But what could we agree on? Was there less crime? Were people more moral (by which is meant mainly sexual morality)? Did everyone really get along? Were marriages happier and did they last longer? Was there community pride? Did people attend church more?
These questions and hundreds more I could come up with have been studied but I want to present my own personal experiences and I hope that others will comment with their own and gradually reach some common ground. Obviously, this will be a real ramble – long on anecdotes, reminiscences, and the idiosyncrasies of my personality.
I’ll just start. Family is a huge issue in society and in schools. Divorce was statistically uncommon I suppose, but my grandmother had two marriages, my aunt had two and my mom four. My maternal uncle married only once. But, now that everyone is dead I can say this, his loving wife of all those years got him to marry her by saying she was pregnant. They had a good marriage anyway, although, ironically, childless.
My aunt’s first husband used to chase her around the house with a shotgun. My great-aunt’s live-in boyfriend gassed himself to death before the liquor could kill him. My grandmother was boy crazy up through her eighties.
The picture I’m painting here is that some members of the family were a trifle unstable although nowadays they might not stand out much. OTOH, my one aunt’s two sons went to college and became upstanding citizens, one a minister. Sadder was my older aunt’s story – her only child was born severely crippled, the result, it was said, of being punched in the stomach when she was pregnant by her husband.
To keep things in perspective, my mon’s sister and brother died young, one an infant and the other in her twenties of TB. This would have all been in an early twentieth century context; my grandmother was born in 1876.
My mom was a torch singer and she met my dad when he became her agent. My mom often talked of the more edgy life, band members who smoked marijuana and so forth. For some reason, she was attracted to gangster types and my dad had to work out a deal with some goombah who was interested in my mom. My dad was of Italian immigrant parents and didn’t speak English until he started school. He had a classic immigrant sense of deprivation – his mom died when he was six. So all his life he sought what he called ’recognition’.
Now I could go on with this personal bio but I’ve said more than enough to remind you of many other and more interesting biographies you have read. Just in reading book reviews, you pick up all sorts of information about people at various periods in history. As a counselor, I’ve heard many family sagas; for some reason, even when I was a child older people liked talking to me and told me their stories. They all had strange and irregular goings-on in their lives. And that’s my point… and here is where it gets political.
Conservatives want to roll back changes that they don’t like; not all changes, just the ones they don’t like. I’m using the word ’conservative’ very loosely here – it can refer to anyone who tells us that we have gone too far in changing things, whether the changes be in religion, economics, politics. “life styles”, international relations, education, or diet. Anything. And to convince us to roll back changes, they paint for us this rosy picture of the past and then say, “See how far we’ve fallen?” With that, they offer plans to take us back to a better time. My whole point here is not to say that things haven’t changed but that you cannot go back, for one thing, and for another, “back” wasn’t all that hot.
One day in Spanish class I was talking about myself so students could get the vocabulary they would need to talk about themselves and I counted the number of schools I had gone to – eleven, starting with kindergarten. I attended junior high and high school in five states. They were surprised. I suppose that was a lot but many kids, esp army brats, did the same. This gives me a broader view of schools than someone who went to one school system in a small town.
In fifth and sixth grade the style was wearing your pants as low on your hips as possible. Does that sound familiar? Has anyone said this is something new, that kids never used to behave like that in the past? Try 1952, Phoenix, AZ. Good school, good neighborhood. I joined the roughneck crowd for some reason – I was always the smallest kid in class so it was probably for protection. So it wasn’t all the kids who did that.
That brings up something I’ve noticed. Teachers focus on the problem kids and forget about the rest of the quiet students. Any number of times, I’ve got a teacher who was complaining about “these kids” to narrow it down to just a couple who were getting his goat.
Be patient with me – I’ll make some generalizations, but I’ve got a lot more to describe for those younger people who’ve been fed a line about the past – about media, violence and crime and drugs, sex, jobs, teaching, etc.