The Once and Future Us


Beginning in 1998, Benoit College in Wisconsin has produced a list every fall about incoming freshmen. These are usually playful but provocative broad strokes, fun to read and intended to help educators understand their audience.

Again, these are generalizations, attempting to place 18-year-olds in time. This new group, for example, represents the last of the Millennials, the final freshmen to be born in the 20th century (or the 1900s, if you’re feeling the urge to nitpick).

I found this year’s list a little uninspired, although I’m not neutral. In my 40s, I read them with curiosity, fascinated by the fact that a new generation had arrived at adulthood with a unique history. It allowed me to think of my children in an objective way, understanding that their world was slightly different than mine.

Now that I’m in my 50s, and my youngest child is closer to 30 than 18, I’m less amused. Now I’m just aware of mortality, not only my personal kind but also of memories.

I should also note that I’m in my 50s the way Wile E. Coyote is on solid ground when he steps off a cliff and stays suspended in mid-air. My time as a college freshman (two of the best years of my life) was 40 years ago. My cultural cobwebs have cobwebs.

The Benoit list is heavy with culture, of course, as well as technology. Michael Jackson died when these freshmen were 10 years old, Steve Jobs two years later. Many of them had cell phones in elementary or middle school, and landlines might be a faint memory, something they only remember from grandma’s house. VCRs are relics of another age, just as typewriters were to my kids.

Most of them, probably, have no real memory of a president before Barack Obama. Monica Lewinsky might only draw blank stares and shrugs, and Bill Clinton has always been thin, old, and mostly Hillary’s husband.

This list is ostensibly designed to give faculty a sense of reference points, what they can allude to and what might need an explanation when teaching these fresh faces, although there seems to be a lot of interest in the subject, anyway. I’ve noticed a few memes online, thought experiments about generation gaps. “What would you tell a young person about the past that they wouldn’t believe?” is one I’ve seen a lot.

This is sort of an arrogant question, assuming that young people have no interest in the past, or awareness of what happened before they were born. Progress always preserves its past, usually in faster and easier ways, and even a mildly curious child can get a good look at the lives their grandparents led, way back when. I long ago stopped boring my kids with stories about four TV channels and rabbit ears.

I’ve been enjoying a weekly movie night with friends this summer, with a screen and projector, sometimes popcorn. It was just a whim, taking advantage of an empty space and available equipment, with an odd urge that only now I understand. And rather than lecture an 18-year-old on the joys of the rotary-dial telephone, or stories of The Day We Got Cable, it occurred to me that there might actually be vestiges of an earlier life worth mentioning.

Watching movies with friends hasn’t disappeared; it’s actually easier than ever. What I might bring up with a young person willing to indulge me is that, 40 years ago, new movies came with an expiration date; we either had to see it while it was in a theater, or shrug and leave it for some distant future when it would be shown, heavily edited and condensed, on network television.

What they probably wouldn’t grasp, I think, is the fact that we all experienced our culture at roughly the same time, if not with the same perspective. This isn’t an absolute goodness by any means; our choices were severely restricted by today’s standards, and I’d hate to lose the luxury of watching, reading, or listening to whatever I want, when I want.

What I miss, and what I suspect these new college students are missing, is sharing with strangers. I can stand in a checkout line during football season, strike up a conversation with a stranger about the Seahawks, and my chances of getting a reaction are good. My affection for “Better Call Saul,” on the other hand, a TV series watched by maybe 1% of the population, isn’t likely to be reciprocated or even understood. We all have our things, and they don’t meet in any middle.

And I don’t think it’s a stretch to wonder if our fractured society, polarized and divided, isn’t this way in part because we don’t do things together as much as we used to. Our problems with inequity and opportunity are systemic, obviously, and can’t be solved with a movie night. And there’s nothing cyclical about progress, particularly technological progress; life moves in one direction only.

“For in the final analysis,” John Kennedy said, “we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s futures, and we are all mortal.” He was speaking to Cold War tensions, but it remains applicable. We have much more in common than we think.

And while we won’t be saved by films, or football, I still think it’s worth remembering the way things were, if only to understand why things feel so different. At any rate, good luck, incoming class of 2021. Pass the popcorn.

Chuck SigarsComment