"What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?" -- Plato, circa 348 B.C.
One of those ludicrous e-mails that's been kicking around forever landed in my In Box the other day. The subject line was "How old is grandpa?" (or something similar), and it ran through a long list of things that supposedly did not exist when Gramps was a boy (television, fast food, ballpoint pens), bemoaned the way social mores have changed (when Gramps was a boy, grass was something that got mowed, premarital sex was nonexistent, and there were lemonade springs where the bluebird sings. . . ), and then concluded with "He's 59!" I laughed. A lot. The little trip down Nostalgia Lane obviously hadn't been updated since someone first scrawled it with a goose quill pen quite a few years ago.
Think about it. Someone who is 59 now was born in 1950. People who are 59 now were teenagers in the 1960s and in their 20s during the 1970s -- the era when every male's ambition was to have a Penthouse letters experience. (For the uninitiated, Penthouse letters were noted for men describing "I never thought this could happen to me!" sexual exploits: sex with incredibly hot twins, sex on Greyhound buses, sex in elevators, sex with strangers, sex with the babysitter, sex with watermelons, sex with kitchen appliances . . . you get the idea.)
Then, by coincidence, I read Last Child in the Woods. It's a great book with an important thesis, but it's got the same vein running through it: things were better in the good old days. The author, Richard Louv, waxes nostalgic over growing up in a close-to-rural area, building tree forts, messing around in the woods, getting dirty, and generally being able to live a vaguely Tom Sawyer-ish childhood. He has a serious point to make -- Americans are increasingly disconnected from the natural world; we see nature as something we go and visit, but fewer and fewer of us are actually doing that (visits to national parks have dropped, fishing is losing popularity as a hobby, even the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts are moving away from camping and other outdoor activities). Louv sees the lack of connection with nature as contributing to a whole host of problems: childhood obesity, crime rates, poor academic performance, social anomie, . . . you name the problem, and we can make it better by providing more opportunities for kids to enjoy unstructured play and explore nature.
I actually agree with many of the points Louv makes, but think his perception of the wonders of a childhood where kids could flip over rocks, dig for worms, or build tree forts in a vacant lot as they wandered about in a carefree bucolic landscape is more than a tad skewed by his own rose-colored memories of his particular lived experience. (I'm also distrustful of the single cure for everything that ails us even when it's a cure I like, but that's a subject for a different post.) He's doing the same stroll down Nostalgia Lane that the folks who pass along the "things were better in the old days" e-mails or call in to C-SPAN saying they want "their country" back do -- imagining a past that never was as good as anyone of them think it was.