[A quick note: This post originally appeared on Change.org on March 13, 2009. I’m reposting it here with some minor edits]
In the Washington Post, Ron Charles wonders aloud what has become of the radical youth because college students of today, instead of reading seminal counterculture works by Jack Kerouac, Abbie Hoffman, and Anais Nin, are reading Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Apparently, the idea that the younger generation rebel against the older generation, rise up and challenge the status quo was smothered to death in a cul-de-sac somewhere in the last 30 years (“On Campus, Vampires are Besting the Beats“):
Here we have a generation of young adults away from home for the first time, free to enjoy the most experimental period of their lives, yet they’re choosing books like 13-year-old girls — or their parents. The only specter haunting the groves of American academe seems to be suburban contentment. Where are the Germaine Greers, the Jerry Rubins, the Hunter Thompsons, the Richard Brautigans — those challenging, annoying, offensive, sometimes silly, always polemic authors whom young people used to adore to their parents’ dismay?
He goes on to lament that college campuses don’t seem to be what they were 40 years ago when his generation was stirring up trouble in protest for equal rights or against the Vietnam War (in fact, he mentions that a tour guide at Kent State University doesn’t mention the infamously fatal 1970 riot on his tour), and that the average college student has become more conservative in some ways, but simply less active in others. Even though he does admit that the way today’s youth participates in politics isn’t the same way their parents or grandparents did, he doesn’t seem to approve:
“As young people shift toward the Internet and away from exploring their political activism in books, the blood drains from their shelves. For the Twitter generation, the new slogan seems to be ‘Don’t trust anyone over 140 characters.’ What you see at the next revolution is far more likely to be a well-designed Web site than a radical novel or a poem. Not to be a drag, but that’s so uncool. For those of us who care about literature and think it still has a lot to offer, it’s time to start chanting, ‘Hell, no! We won’t go!'”
I’ve read this article three times now, plus what people have written in the Post’s comments sections (well, except for those beating the “liberals are destroying learning … all college is radical … teachers are communists … and what do we do with witches? BURN THEM!” drum, which … *yawn*. Wake me up when you come off it) and I’m still vacillating between two thoughts: yes, we’re all doomed, because sometimes I’m amazed that my students read at all; and no, you’re just another whining boomer that I had to hear from when I was in high school in the ’90s and you people were calling everyone between 15-30 a “slacker.” While I honestly admit that I didn’t really like On the Road, I took enough writing classes in college to be around people who had read and workshipped Jack Kerouac — and discontent coming from a kid at a private Catholic college whose biggest problem is telling mom and dad that he ran up the Visa buying clothes from J. Crew doesn’t exactly come off as genuine (I won’t go into the Sylvia Plath desciples, who I’m sure had already preheated the ovens in their dorms.)
Cynical jokes aside, Charles is raising an important issue, even if about 75% of his complaint misses the point. First, he doesn’t seem to realize that his generation didn’t all spend their youth protesting things. My father, for instance, was actually in Vietnam when Charles and his contemporaries were protesting the war and the idolization of the “hippie” or the college student protester seems to be more a result of pop culture’s being able to sell that image more than it could the image of the kid who graduated high school and was drafted or simply went to work for his dad. He also seems to ignore 40 years of the history of the teenager. In the 1960s, adolescence was still a relatively new concept and the idea that teenagers and “tweens” (the term for the 8-13 year-old demo that put Miley Cyrus on the map) were a multi-million-dollar demographic wasn’t even there.
In the nearly 55 years since Rebel Without a Cause, teenagers have gone from having nothing for them to watching their peers get hacked to death by hockey mask-wearing psychopaths, spend Saturdays in detention finding themselves, simulating sex with pastry, and losing their virginities to prom queens and cheerleaders over and over and over and over. It’s kind of hard to rebel against your parents in a unique way when everything you are–from caffiene-laden energy drinks to “vintage” punk T-shirts–has been sold to you in a very calculated manner. Hell, in a few years, the tattoo that freaks out your parents won’t freak them out because they already have the same incomprehensible Chinese characters or barb-wire/tribal armband ink.
But I digress … it’s the point about reading itself that is valid. Charles should not be concerned with his beloved favorites being ignored; he should be concerned with just about everyone being ignored. Because of the way some English curricula is constructed, there are a significant number of college students who enter having studied less than ten novels over the course of high school and of the novels they do read those may or may not include texts that I’ve always thought were high school standards. The idea that someone can enter college without having opened To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, or The Great Gatsby is a reality.
Not to commit my own act of clique maintenance (a term, btw, courtesy of Douglas Coupland, a “subversive” author from my reckless youth) but I remember reading four novels plus Julius Caesar in 10th grade English; my general-level 10th grade students will read A Doll’s House, Night, and some haphazardly arranged short stories (my advanced level has a significantly higher workload). It’s partially my own fault, I know, but it’s also a product of the “they’re overworked and overscheduled” mantra that’s been beaten into our culture about our students.
Fifteen years ago, I would be given a novel, told to read it by a certain day and that there would be a test on the day it was due; if I were to do that today I’d probably get at least one phone call from an exasperated parent. I think activism will live even if today’s students aren’t staging sit-ins with Grace Slick (insert “We Built This City” joke here)–you could see that in the protests of the Iraq War and even the most recent presidential election–but the idea that something can be found in what you read beyond a crush on a fictional vampire might not. But hope is not totally lost. I have one sophomore who’s obsessed with Twilight, but she’s also read Dracula and recently borrowed a department copy of Frankenstein. I also have one student who thinks that A Doll’s House should have ended with Nora marrying Dr. Rank because he was truly in love with her.
Ah well, like The Boss says, one step up and two steps back.