That golden age
School’s about to open, so we can expect to encounter articles telling us that kids today don’t know much and that schools today don’t teach much and that the country is therefore going straight to hell.
This newspaper is going straight to hell, too. Nothing is as good as it was in 1962. Make that 1956. Or 1942. Do I hear 1922?
On examination, that golden age when things were as they were meant to be keeps receding. I was a student in a public school in Eastern Kentucky in the 1950s and 1960s when we were taught, by rote and in no uncertain terms, what was right and what was wrong. We diagrammed sentences. Mrs. Jessie Perkins had us write out and submit each week all 20 spelling words 10 times each. And quizzed us on them.
And yet I can’t say with any authority that most of my classmates turned out to be highly literate, precise or expressive writers.
College students, we’ll hear, have no interest in learning, because they spend all their time getting hammered in beer pong or other drinking games.
And yet I recall that Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, from 1928, opens with a chapter in which two officials at an Oxford college are aware that the students are out of an evening of amusement as they listen to “the sound of the English country families baying for broken glass.”
Somewhere or another we’re also likely to hear complaints about the way the English language is degenerating shamefully. These complaints come from the kind of person David Foster Wallace describes in “Authority and American Usage” (an Atlantic Monthly article reprinted in Consider the Lobster) as the “usage-authority, a figure who pretty much instantiates snobbishness and bow-tied anality.” *
And yet I see all kinds of lively inventiveness reflected in place like Grant Barrett’s Double-Tongued Dictionary Web site. Or I go into the back files of newspapers from those golden years and find just as much cant, cliche and slovenly usage as turns up today.
It wasn’t all that better then, whenever then was, and holding up today to scorn by comparison with an imagined past distorts perceptions about the present — which is probably bad enough without that.
* Could we all just lay off the bow tie, already?