Saturday, May 21, 2005

Betterer or Worser? Mark II

My friend Dean Esmay has posted a follow-up piece on the question, "Is life getting better than it used to be? Or is life getting worse than it used to be?" He's restricting comments to those in their 70s and on up— presumably, those who'd be old enough to have some useful historical parallax on the matter. I see so far the young'uns aren't respecting Dean's age limit, but let it never be said that I am one to thoughtlessly break rules!

(When I break a rule, I almost always break it thoughtfully and quite deliberately.)

My personal reaction to Dean's thesis as initially stated was that it is so broad as to be almost meaningless: I mean, is life getting better or worse?— how do you answer such a question meaningfully, without writing a book?

Now his follow-up post provides a list of test questions, and immediately a light bulb goes on over my head: I'm not on the upward side of 70, but I am within hailing distance of 50. Which puts me only 10 years older than Mr. Esmay, but nonetheless on the far side from him of that great cultural revolution known as the late 1960s. Now I see where he's coming from, and given the cultural gap between us, it's simply not where I'd ever be coming from.

First, specific replies to some of Dean's questions. Then, some more general thoughts.

1) When you were young, did you ever know of kids who dropped out of school at age 12 or 13 to get jobs?

In my generation, it was kids at age 16, and not so very many of those: about 90% of my high school class graduated. Nonetheless, today's common notion of a high school or college diploma as a talismanic prerequisite for an entry-level job simply was not in the air back in those days. Yes, by dropping out of high school you were probably limiting your career choices somewhat. Probably. Somewhat. But in those days practical experience and hard work were still regarded in many jobs as a more than adequate substitute for a diploma.

2) To the best of your memory, how common was it for infants to die back when you were a kid?

It happened; uncommonly, but it was hardly unheard of. Nonetheless, there was not in those days the sense there is today that we are somehow entitled to be insulated from the rigors of life and death.

3) Health insurance: did you have that growing up?

Yes. Though health care was much, much more affordable in those days, so that health insurance was not at all the overshadowing factor that it is today. At age 7 I underwent surgery and spent five days in the hospital: total hospital bill, less than $500— that is, less than my dad's monthly paycheck. This was the kind of eventuality for which a prudent family could budget, insurance or no.

4) When you were young, did you know anyone who didn't have indoor plumbing?

Not right then, in the small town in southern Wisconsin where I grew up. But I knew it had been not uncommon in the recent past. My dad grew up in the city: the Burgesses had been city dwellers since about 1880. But my mom grew up on a farm, and her family had had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity nor running water up through the earlier part of her childhood. Hearing stories of her childhood, I grew up not taking these blessings for granted, or as an entitlement, as is so often the case today.

7) Do you remember a time when shoes were something of a luxury for kids?

No, we always had new store-boughten shoes; but these were among the few clothing items I had growing up, which were not home-made or hand-me-downs. Our clothes were serviceable, but by today's media-hyped designer standards utterly unfashionable: we never knew the difference, and we took patched knees and elbows on our everyday clothing for granted.

8) When you were young, did you ever know an adult who could not read a newspaper?

Not first hand, but second hand. The few people in those days who couldn't read were often stone-cold illiterate. Functional illiteracy, as is widespread today, existed back then, but it was relatively uncommon. Some adults could read better than others, but most adults back then could read at a level that would put many younger adults today to shame. And newspapers and magazines back then were written for a much higher grade level, as could easily be measured by the "Fog Index."

12) You didn't hear much swearing on radio or movies when you were young—but despite that, when you were young did you know many people who swore a lot?

I heard people swearing. But it was not done openly in respectable society. Period. Not that I today would lose any sleep over it.

13) Did you ever see legal segregation firsthand? Can you tell me about it?

Growing up in Wisconsin, I of course saw no de jure segregation. There was a certain amount of racial prejudice about, though less than you might guess; nonetheless, what prejudice there was, was often expressed quite openly and quite shamelessly.

14) I recently had a young man tell me that back in the 1950s, a plumber could easily afford to buy a new home and, with his wife a full-time housewife, put all his kids through college. Does that match your recollection of what life was like 50 years ago?

Not as many people went to college, because as I already remarked, a college degree back then was not regarded as a talismanic prerequisite. Both my parents were college graduates, but in those days that was certainly not the norm.

Thus the plumber's 3 or 4 or 5 kids would probably not (except perhaps for the brightest one or two of them) have gone on to college. Apart from that, the picture of the plumber and his family rings true. A house was a major purchase, and it was beyond some families; but for most of my neighbors growing up, housing was far less expensive than it is today. A house was a major purchase, no doubt, but it was not at all the crippling double-income sentence of indenturement which it has become today.

My mother was a full-time housewife. The mothers of two out of my three closest friends in school worked outside the home: this was hardly as unheard-of in those days as some since have tried to portray it. But many if not most of the families I knew were single-income, and most or all of them enjoyed a solid middle-class existence on one income.

14) I recently had a young person tell me that in the great World War II, and the Korean War, young people were much braver and more patriotic than they are today. Do you think that's a fair assessment of what life was like 55 years ago?

I know plenty of young people today who are both patriotic and brave. But certainly the level of patriotism when I was young was at least as high, and probably higher. And it was far easier back then: there was a higher level of social support for it. At least until the late 60s, one could be openly patriotic almost anywhere without fear of mockery or contempt.


Dean's questions are incisive, but they are definitely the questions of one who is not quite old enough to remember first-hand what the culture of the antediluvium was like. We live today in something of a "Nerf-ball world," insulated and cosseted from hard realities which until recent generations were taken for granted, and which were endured stoically, because for most or all of us there was no alternative.

(Of course when I say "we," I'm talking about the small-town middle-class Midwestern United States, which is where I've spent most of my life. YMMV)

We also live today in a world which is materially richer, and in which people tend to have far more "things" than their counterparts had 40 or 50 years ago. And Dean's questions reflect that shift. In 1965 we did not take videocams, and iPods, and VCRs, and microwaves, and home computers, and satellite TV, and two-car garages, and designer clothing for 8-year-olds, and eating out three times a week, for granted. Dean's questions seem tacitly to assume that all this is not only the norm, but unquestionably a change for the better. Having reached my early adolescence by the time the Deluge hit, I don't find this tacit assumption at all obvious, and I can't really go along with it unquestioningly.

I mean, look, I love a nifty high-tech gadget as much as the next person. I'm thankful for contemporary advances in medical care. And I too have acquired my share of "things" (though less than ten years ago my "nonjettisonable" material possessions, above and beyond my books, could still have been fit within the space underneath a kitchen table). But is every further Mammonward step really an automatic escalator step forward and upward? Are materialism, and the tide of ever-rising expectations, really beyond question? And does man truly live by bread alone?

I say no.

I say no— not merely because Dean is being a dewy-eyed liberal, and I'm being a hard-nosed conservative. Not merely because Dean is an atheist and I'm one of them pesky Christians. And not merely because Dean is a self-avowed "materialistic rationalist"; whereas I maintain, along with the broader spectrum of 2500 years of Western culture, that even on a purely this-worldly level, rationalism systemically blinds us to much of what is real in the world around us. No, I think the real gap on this issue between my friend Dean and myself... is simply that I'm old enough to remember back beyond one more massive shift in our culture than he is.

Is life today getting better than it used to be? Or is it getting worse?

I dunno, in part I think if that question's going to be meaningful, it has to be disaggregated and broken down into smaller, more concrete questions. As Dean has done. Only, child of the mid-century that I am, and having been born on the far side of a cultural divide as I was, I wouldn't even ask the same set of questions that Dean has asked.

Chalk it up to ten years' difference in historical parallax.



Anonymous urthshu said...

Your thoughtful post reflects a weighted interest in issues of character, though I'd wonder whether or not one could or should read further into that.

For instance: Akin to Dean's last query [whether people were generally more patriotic then] one might be led to ask whether people are less 'good' now?

You see where such queries could lead, I'm sure. And I'm sure thats more than you meant.

For what it's worth, I think perhaps that materialism & the frenetic speed at which life is led today covers over both great 'goodness' and great 'badness'. Less attention is paid to the good among us [and fewer recognise it anymore] and, while there are certainly very [um...gloriously?] bad persons now, we don't seem by and large to pay attention to them either.

Curious, don't you think?

Sunday, May 22, 2005 2:17:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Urthshu, thanks for your remarks. Character... hmmm, that does seem to be one thread running through what I wrote, and I can't say I was consciously aware of it, either.

What was running through my mind as I wrote is that Dean's questions (which ought to be bronzed and hung on the wall, by the way) were almost entirely focused on measurable items, the kinds of things that might be quantified and studied in the social sciences. Which, that's Dean for you, and that's one way of going about it.

But I was thinking to myself that, in writing about a phenomenon as rich and as subtle as our culture and its vicissitudes, we really ought to bring in not just the social sciences, but also the kinds of perspectives that are available only through the humanities— the humanities as they were before they were "deconstructed," that is! The humanities including theology and philosophy.

I think an inquiry into the well-being of our culture is incomplete without the insights of a Jacques Barzun, a George Santayana, a Reinhold Niebuhr. That's what I was getting at with my outburst about "rationalism," up above.

And I persist in being extremely old-fashioned in holding that the insights attainable through the humanities are just as much knowledge qua knowledge, and just as vital a part of our knowledge of the world around us, as any insights gained by a sociologist or a physicist.

I think you're also right about notably good or evil persons being less noticed today. Heroes have given way to "role models," and role models (unlike heroes) have a way of fading back into the woodwork after their 15 minutes of fame. Or as Daniel Boorstin put it, heroes have given way to celebrities, who are "well-known for being well-known."

Monday, May 23, 2005 6:42:00 AM  
Anonymous urthshu said...

Interesting that you've noted Deconstruction in your response.

That approach was invented to break up the prevailing, overly-structured intellectual traditions of the French. As such, it was designed to tear down previous honored ways of thinking.

We never required its 'services, because our intellectual traditions weren't structured to the degree the french elite's were, but we've suffered the effects of losing our moorings anyway.

WRT Heroes & role models: Yes. I'm almost exactly Dean's age [a day difference, I think] & I remeber thinking there were no more heroes since they'd all been torn down, even legends like Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, etc. Only one was left from my childhood who was unimpeachable: Jim Henson.

Make of that what you will. :-)

FWIW, I do agree about with you about the Humanities being a form of knowledge distinct from the sciences, etc. My own 'field', psychology, is both social & physical science with toe-dipping into the humanities. Its one of the reasons I like it.

Monday, May 23, 2005 11:44:00 AM  

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