Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Generation Liberation

[Cross-posted on AmbivaBlog]

Reading this in a letter to the editor in the current New Yorker --

A striking quality about many homeschooled children is their ability to converse with ease with adults, and with children much older or younger than themselves, as they have not spent most of their social lives exclusively among those within a twelve-month span of their own age.

-- tapped into an underground river of thought that has been gathering force in my mind for some time, fed by various tributaries. What is now rising to the surface is the idea that one of the most unexamined, taken-for-granted, pervasive, and pernicious factors in our society may be age segregation.

It was Matt at Stepping Stone who first brought this to my attention:

Age grading, the use of age "as a criterion for ordering lives," is a relatively recent practice. [Barbara] Rogoff points out that before the late 1800s, "people rarely knew their age, and students advanced in their education as they learned." (Think of the one-room schoolhouse.) This is still true in many parts of the world.

Age grading emerged, according to Rogoff, because of huge changes in our society in the late 1800s. "Industrialization, urbanization of the population, and huge influxes of immigrants" created a massive influx of children into schools. Efficiency in dealing with these numbers became paramount. . . .

For thousands of years of human history-- and in many parts of the world today-- children were raised in the meaning-rich context of family and community. They interacted constantly with children of various ages, and spent much of their time apprenticing to meaningful tasks alongside their parents, other adults, and older children. They were often responsible for the care of younger siblings. . . .

Industrialization, however, by removing work from the community, pushed children into schools where they interacted more exclusively with their same-age peers, and often apprenticed to abstract tasks instead of practical ones. And the bonds of family and community began to fray:

The growth in emphasis on age-graded institutions has created a societal structure in which associations with similar-age people has taken precedence in many cases over intergenerational family and community relations.

This isn't quite a "theory of everything," but it's one of those quiet little ideas that, as you live with it over time, spreads and grows to explain more and more.

For instance, I look with some bemusement at my "newly" (over 25 years now, but he was raised secular) Orthodox Jewish cousin's lifestyle, one I could never adopt because it distances you from everyone who's not Orthodox Jewish; yet I can't deny that his children are extraordinarily wonderful -- radiant, open, considerate and affectionate to adults. Until just now I had attributed that, in a mystified way, to their religious upbringing. But reading the letter in The New Yorker about homeschooled kids suddenly made the connection: maybe it's not the religion per se, but the way it -- and tradition generally, which I tend to scorn -- organizes life vertically in time, rather than horizontally. What is the same from generation to generation, what is not enslaved to events and trends, may be important not so much in itself -- or not only in itself -- but for the way it holds the generations together.

My cousin's kids weren't homeschooled; indeed, they went away to sex-segregated Orthodox boarding schools. But the fact that they were being inducted into an elaborate tradition meant that both at home and at school, they were deeply involved with, virtually apprenticed to, the adults who were imparting it to them, not just as subject matter but as a total way of life. In turn, the tradition gave the adults the confidence that they had something of great importance to convey to their children, and the right, the authority, the responsibility to convey it. It wouldn't have to be the rituals and observances of a religion; the transmission of a trade or craft, of the skills and arts of adult living, used to bind the generations together in the same way. But it has to be something real, important to the adults and vital to the kids' future lives, even if the teaching approach is sometimes playful. (Which means that soccer practice is not enough.) Surely the Industrial Revolution's separation of the home from the workplace, and of school from both, was as disruptive a change as age grading -- and inseparable from it.

The end result is that for at least the last half century, people's loyalties have been horizontal more than vertical. They think of themselves more as members of a generation -- with its rather accidental collection of common experiences, styles, and cultural artifacts -- than of a family or a tradition. What's good about this new way of living is the pressure for creativity and adaptability: each generation has to (and gets to) improvise its own culture, in quick response to changing conditions and events. What's bad about it is that there's much less learning from collective experience, no time for the good new ideas to get winnowed out from the bad ones (or to discover that they're not so new, after all). And especially in adolescence, having your peers be the most powerful force in your life, the ones you emulate and the ones whose approval you play to, leads to a lot of bad ideas. You might as well expect a monkey to learn manners from a mirror.

What defines a "generation," as a cultural unit? The first thing that comes to mind, unfortunately, is, "Its war." Like Tolstoy's unhappy families, every war is unhappy in its own way, and the unique, intense experiences shared by a cohort of young people at a particularly impressionable age tend to stamp and mold them, giving them their own language and mood that other generations can't share or understand. A potential for generational alienation also lurks in the fact that it's the old who start wars, but the young who are sent to fight them. Should the rationale for a war come into doubt, the young are apt to feel betrayed and to withdraw from the intergenerational compact. This happened on a large scale after World War I, in a way that found an echo 50 years later in Vietnam. What Gertrude Stein dubbed "a lost generation" had lost faith in all the prewar pieties and traditions that had culminated in such a bonfire of the verities.

Immigration must also have helped to stratify the generations in America in a way that never quite happened anyplace else. (Communist revolution, with its suppression of tradition, would have had a similar effect, though.) This discontinuity in every family's life, the desire of the young to belong to their new country and to shed the quaint, stigmatizing Old World behavior of their parents (adaptive in the old context, a hindrance in the new), has to be one of the roots of the uniquely American notion that "my parents are clueless."

And then there's technology, changing -- and changing our lives -- so fast that each subgeneration is a tribe shaped, defined, and sealed off by its media. (Perhaps this trend is reversing, though, and technology is now beginning to reconcile the generations, as grandparents master e-mail, digital photo sharing, and instant messaging to keep in touch with their grandkids.) Long before personal computers and cellphones took over our lives, Margaret Mead pointed out that technology replacing tradition as the matrix of our lives meant that parents now had to learn survival skills from their children, an unprecedented and almost biologically unsettling inversion of the norm.

But if anybody made a pernicious fad of the ideas of "generation" and the "generation gap," it was "My Generation," the baby boomers. It's ironic that I, once an ardent chronicler of this generation's supposed specialness, should come to find the whole notion so imprisoning and oppressive. And it may be taken as typically self-serving that I've decided this idea we boomers shoved down all of your throats is a crock just as we're about to be herded into the gomer ghetto. Nonetheless, having carried this precious burden of generational chosenness for so long, I was astonished at what a relief it was to lay it down and rejoin the human race. Neither we nor the 1960s were particularly special. It was just our youth. And there were a lot of us. That's all. The fact that the (lack of) perspective of youth so overwhelmingly dominated society, because of sheer numbers, indulgent parents, and the fawning of advertisers, maybe made the 1960s a little bit special -- in a bad way.

So what am I saying? "Bring back tradition" is not my refrain. Too much crap comes along with the good stuff, in my presumptuous estimation. But maybe one of the reasons so many people now feel a craving for tradition is because they long to bridge the isolation of the generations, and that's just the most tried-and-true way. Is there another way? All I know is that there's a kind of timelessness to human life that you can't see and don't want to believe when you're young and anything seems possible, yet that provides a tacit, comforting background, a safety net for your Icarus cloudsurfing and some firm but springy ground when you come down.

- amba


At 11:23 AM, Anonymous Heiuan said...

Amba, great thoughts, indeed!

I come from a family that has, for as long as any of us knows, always lived in multi-generational homes. Our households are made up of three, sometimes four, generations of people all sharing the same space and intertwining lives. Having respect for each other is one of our main principles. Its about the only way to keep the peace, lol.

It has been very, very difficult to keep our familial structure intact over the last 40 years with the onset of new technologies, new cultural traditions, new societal mores, all of it being thrust at humanity as a whole.

We have had to adapt to the world around us, just as the rest of society has. We send our kids to public schools; live normal, American-citizen lives; spend way too much money at major gift-giving short, we're just regular people.

We have 'chosen' to actively live in this world today while 'choosing' to retain our internal culture and traditions.

In the end, its all a choice. And, for us, it's worth it to be able to live both vertically and horizontally. It IS hard work, but being able to retain our family traditions while still being able to be a fully functioning part of a greater citizenship makes everything worth it, for us.

At 8:15 PM, Blogger amba said...

Ah, Heiuan, lucky you!

I've wondered whether the trend for grown "kids" in their 20s to come home and live with Mom and Dad is entirely economy-driven . . . or whether there isn't also a sneaky nostalgia for the extended family, which we hard-nosed Americans have to cover for by saying, "It's just that I can't find a job that pays the rent . . . " In Europe, young people live with or near their parents until they get married and often thereafter. And old people, as far as I have observed, are usually kept at home.


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