Was there something magical about 1997?

One of the astounding elements of Ellen Shrager’s excellent excursion into what makes “kids these days” seem different from when “we” were in school (1938 to 2009), was the specific year she gave for the great change-over: 1997. Perhaps she said ’95 – I’d have to look at my notes – but around 15 years ago. Why astounding?

I remember 15 years ago; I had been teaching about 10 years then. The fact that I don’t recall any major change isn’t surprising b/c I don’t see any major differences between students today and students in my day – the 50s. But then neither do I recall any change in our society, economics, politics, or intellectual and artistic life. Rap and hip-hop were long established; the Republican Party discipline had started up with Tom Delay but I cannot imagine that having an effect on students. What else? The Cold War had ended earlier…..

This is where a little more interaction on this blog would be helpful; maybe we can come up with something, maybe something in education that I was unaware of. NCLB didn’t start until after 2000. The Monica Lewinski scandal? How so?

I think I know where my notes from that presentation are and I’ll see if Ellen says anything about the cause. But usually, such major changes are the result of a long accumulation of interlocking and interrelated pressures, failures, additions, and so on. Things like immigration, the failure of the working class to see improvement in their economic status, the lack of on-going wars (soon to be remedied), migrations due to climatic catastrophes like the Dust Bowl. But there is nothing like that in the mid-90s.

Now, what might be some factors leading to a “different” sort of kid in the classroom these days? I really hope someone helps me explore these. My own baseline is the 50s; I graduated high school in 1959 at age 17. I attended junior and high school in five different states. I attended eleven schools overall K-12. School was not a great experience for me but neither was it entirely miserable; I wasn’t popular or active but I did have friends and loved to read and study languages. I loved history but was not a particularly good student, graduating with a B average.

So what have I seen, you might ask. Keep in mind, I worked in mental health and social services from 1965 to 1987, which kept me in touch with young people and social change, particularly among lower socioeconomic groups and my wife was a school counselor as well as teacher.

The biggest change – and here my own marriage as a White man to a Black woman in 1964 certainly has an impact on my perceptions – was a combination of racial integration between Blacks and Whites after the mid-60s and the influx of immigrants from countries not perviously contributing to the immigration pool, starting in the 50s. This changed the complexion, so to speak, of the American classroom. The massive influx of illegal immigrants from Latin-America beginning in the 90s is a major element in this and does coincide with Ellen’s date. My own memories of minorities focuses on kids of Eastern and Southern European immigrants; in the North, a sprinkling of Blacks in a small town but not in large cities where housing segregation was strict; in the South, absolutely no integration; in the West, a couple of Hispanics and Chinese and, in my h.s., one Black teacher following official integration in Phoenix in 1953.

The economics of this era are not entirely clear to me but I do remember the boom of the 50s. My belief is that a lot of Americans my age and a little younger remember that time as if that was the way America always had been and a return to tougher times represented a horrible down-fall and calamity. Just as the children of the Depression were scarred, so the post-war or war babies remember pert near (pretty near) halcyon times. Lots of progress among Blacks was seen and a lot of integration began to be seen as well. The loss of those Northern city jobs brought a halt to all that.

Academics began entering our lives and children previously labeled as misfits or unsuitable for schooling received services and became part of all schools. Along with the above described immigration and integration features of the society came pressures on teachers to adapt to these children whose presence had not been felt before in the classroom. Poor Black kids were dumped fairly early and more assimilated Black kids conformed to White ideas of behavior and got along – though not in the South or areas settled by White Southerners like Arizona (Texas and Oklahoma). Immigrants from Asia and Latin-America were likewise expected to assimilate.

But the long occupation of Japan, the war in Korea, and later, the Vietnam war, raised the consciousness and interest of Americans regarding other cultures. The world-wide war against Communism raised the awareness, too, that Americans did not always present a positive face to the world. One of the debilitating factors I became interested in was our ignorance of foreign languages. It was odd because so many of our citizens grew up in homes speaking foreign languages, but that assimilation pressure spoken up earlier contrained the utlitization of such resources.

This Cold War shaped the views of a couple of generations. Younger people are surprised to learn that I had a vivid nightmare of being caught on a street at night by a nuclear explosion and snuggled, terrified, into the shoulder of the street’s curb, hoping to lower my profile enough so as not to catch the blast. However, it was the wars of independence, the guerrilla wars, the brushfire wars that caught our imagination because they called upon us to develop cultural and linguistic skills along with martial arts. The effect of Japanese culture was obvious, even to the point of affecting American religious views.

We can add to this the effect that women’s emancipation and the inclusion of ethnic minorities had on the teaching profession, as more and more bright and highly motivated people found their services recognized and desired outside teaching and nursing.

And there are others, but I would like to leave this open for other contributions and corrections and modifications of what I’ve presented above.

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