Then And Now

I live in the Southwest portion of Minnesota which is big farm country. The spaces are wide and the fields these days are full of young corn and soy beans, with a few fields of wheat or even beets for the sugar-beet plant nearby. For generations these have been family farms, but the corporations are taking over as we can see by the number of old homes and groves going the way of the bulldozers. But there are other signs of change as well that are equally disturbing.

Our two sons are now in their late forties and have children of their own. But when they were in high school they worked every summer “walking the beans” — pulling up weeds in the soybean fields. The town paid a young person to collect names of kids who wanted to make some money working for the farmers and that person took calls each day from the farmers and then arranged with the kids to work the next day. The farmer would pick them up and drop them off after lunch — which they usually called “dinner.” Occasionally they  joined a team of kids who rode a tractor and sprayed the weeds with poison. But we discouraged that and mostly they walked the beans for local farmers. Or they helped the farmer remove rocks from his field that had appeared over the winter. Those farmers always fed them a big “dinner” and the pay was pretty good. They usually worked in the mornings, ate “dinner,” and were then driven home. They kept what they earned and usually put most of their earnings into a savings account. One time they worked for a corporation de-tasseling corn. But they both hated that (my wife had to literally drag my younger son out of bed one morning to make him stick with a job he hated). The day started very early and the fields were still wet with dew that soaked them through their shirts. And their faces were scratched by the sharp edges of the corn plants. But they did stick with it until the job was done, working full days and hating every minute but making more money than the farmers could pay them.

But no more. The kids don’t walk the beans these days. Or pick up rocks either, except the rare farmer’s son or daughter helping out Dad. As for the rest of them, they stand around on street corners looking bored or drive their cars and pickups around making noise and waiting for something to happen. This is the age of entitlement, after all, and very few young people in this area seem to feel it necessary to earn money to pay for what they want. They simply charge what they want on their credit cards (so they won’t have to wait) or they ask their parents who (out of guilt??) pretty much give them what they want. As a result, farmers either douse their genetically modified crops with Roundup or hire migrant workers who dot the fields this time of the year while the kids are nowhere to be seen. With few exceptions.

People will say that when old codgers like myself complain about the younger generation they are forgetting what it was like when they were kids — things don’t really change that much, they say. Old folks have always complained about the young since the time of the ancient Egyptians, forgetting what it was like when they themselves were young. But that is a bunch of hooey, because things have changed considerably — not only since I was a kid, but since my sons were young. And I don’t see that the change is for the better. On the contrary, it is far worse because these young people are not learning “life-lessons” about responsibility and patience, doing jobs they don’t particularly want to do, waiting for the things they want, and saving money until they can afford them.

Things have not stayed the same at all. Just ask the folks around you who are trying to hire young people to work and can’t find any who are willing to do a full day’s work for decent pay. The young — including recent college graduates —  want shorter hours and larger paychecks. These things I hear from those who are in the know. Things do change, and change is not always for the better. And old codgers like me may have good grounds for complaint.

Whom To Trust?

The truth is something different from the habitual lazy combinations begotten by our wishes. (George Eliot)

One of the major curiosities in this most curious age in which we live is the undue adulation the young receive at the hands of their elders. In fact, one might say the young now command center stage in this drama we call contemporary living, as their elders are ignored and shunted off to stage left, despite the fact that they spend countless hours trying to pretend they are young themselves. The young can do no wrong and we listen at doors for the latest piece of wisdom they might let slip from their lips. They are charming, lovely, beautiful — untainted by the stains of a corrupt world. If families are talking over the dinner table and the young speak up silence immediately ensues in order to allow them to say their piece, though as they grow older they withdraw, become sullen and disinclined to speak at all.  The notion that the kids are simply being rude has gone the way of the dinosaur. In any event, it never occurs to anyone that when they speak what the kids have to say may not be worth listening to and their withdrawal from the adult world is nothing more than a sign of their budding narcissism. But there it is: the result of the youth rebellion.

Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, insists that it started in the 1960s when groups like the S.D.S. led the attack on the “establishment” in general and the universities in particular, giving birth to the slogan “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Richard Hofstadter would insist, I dare to say, that it started a decade earlier during the McCarthy hearings, or, perhaps, when Dwight Eisenhower was running against Adlai Stevenson and suddenly Americans began to distrust the “eggheads” like Stevenson. The youth movement, he might say, is simply the logical development of the anti-intellectual movement that began in the 1950s and which has since been fostered by growing numbers of people in this commodified culture who have never trusted those impractical types who live in “ivory towers.” In any event, as a culture we have come to distrust the elderly (especially those who can think and speak coherently) and instead we check our gut feelings and listen to the young as the sources of what we like to call “truth.” The result has been a general lowering of the culture to the level of what I have called the “new barbarism.” The attack on the universities has resulted in grade inflation and the dumbing down of the curriculum in the schools, and the distrust of those over thirty has resulted in the mindless rejection of all in authority, including parents and teachers, and the almost total dismissal of the notion of expertise which, we are told, is “elitist.” To be sure, the teachers and parents have been party to the retreat as they have shown little courage and practically no confidence in themselves in the face of this assault. But, face it, some are in a better position to know than others and the odds are that those who have lived longer and studied complex issues carefully probably know a thing or two. Perhaps it is time to invent a new slogan: “Don’t trust anyone under thirty.” Or so says Mark Bauerlein and this sentiment, if not those same words, is echoed in the writing of another contemporary student of America’s current cultural malaise.

I refer to Charles Pierce who, in his best-selling book Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue In The Land of The Free, points out that this attack on authority and expertise — and those over thirty — has resulted in a lowering of intelligence (in a country where more people vote for the latest American Idol than they do the President of the United States), along with the reduction of all claims to simple matters of individual opinion, anyone’s opinion. And this in a nation based on Enlightenment ideas articulated and defended by the likes of John Jay, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton.  We have devolved into a nation that has declared war on intelligence and reason, the cornerstones of the Enlightenment, and prefers instead the alleged certainty of gut feelings and the utterances of children. We have turned from books and hard evidence to the mindless drivel of reality shows and video games. Pierce defends three “Great Premises” that he is convinced sum up the attitude of Americans in our day to matters of fact and questions of ultimate truth:

(1) Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.

(2) Anything can be true if someone says it [often and] loudly enough.

(3) Fact is that which enough people believe.  (Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it).

I suppose the last parenthetical comment might be regarded as a corollary of the third premise. But the fact is that in this relativistic age we distrust those who are in a position to know, we wait for the latest poll to decide what is true, and we adulate the young while we ignore the fact that, lost as they are in the world of digital toys, they know very little indeed. As Pierce has shown so convincingly, we are all becoming idiots. We have lost the respect for that truth which we do not manufacture for ourselves, but which stands outside the self and requires an assiduous effort to grasp even in part — together with our conviction that some things are truly evil while others are truly good. All truth is now mere opinion and the moral high ground has been leveled. We ignore the beauty all around us along with the ugly truths about what we are doing to the planet while we indulge ourselves in the latest fashion and seek the liveliest pleasure, convinced that it is the good. And all the while we wait eagerly to see what pearls of wisdom might fall from the young who are busy playing with their digital toys.

What will come of all this remains to be seen, but we might be wise to recognize the fact that those under thirty are still wet behind the ears and don’t know diddly about much of anything of importance. Their elders don’t seem to know much either, but if we recall that the admission of our own ignorance (as Socrates so famously said) is the beginning of wisdom, then that may be the way the adults in this country might begin to resume their role as mentors and our distrust of authority and expertise might be put to rest while we acknowledge that the children know even less than we do, and the majority does not determine what is true or false.