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Cultural Literacy And The Younger Generation: How I Relate To 'Hey Nineteen'

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I fell off the grid a little bit lately, mostly because I started teaching a couple of classes and had to get all the ephemera inherent in that pursuit together. The second section of the course started this week. This morning's edition reminded me of the great Steely Dan tune "Hey Nineteen": "Hey Nineteen, that's 'Retha Franklin/She don't remember the queen of soul ...." Every cultural reference I made fell on uncomprehending ears.

There was Neil Gaiman, "The Princess Bride," Ray Bradbury and others. I pepper my classes with these to illustrate points; for example, "The Princess Bride" elucidates knowing the meanings and subtleties of the words you use: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." None of the 22 students in the class registered recognition.

It might have been the hour. This section meets at around 9:30. I recall when I was in college, and 9:30 was an early course. The school I teach at is totally a commuter college, so the hour may be early for them. I know the class I teach at 4:30 is, for the most part, engaged.

I have three kids. We spent a lot of time instilling cultural literacy in their lives. We exposed them to Gilbert and Sullivan, Seurat and Shakespeare. They can tell the difference between "Citizen Kane" and Herman Cain and have heard the Beatles, Beethoven and Bird. They have a broad base of cultural reference.

I don't like to think of myself as an extraordinary parent. I want what all parents want for their kids: the best I have the ability to give. This includes the knowledge of how to do their laundry, how to cook a meal, how to drive, how to eat right and how to get along. We do not ban video games, watch far too much TV and occasionally indulge in junk food for the sheer pleasure and comfort of it.

But these kids made me feel like I came from another planet. Is this a cultural literacy problem, or do Seurat, Shakespeare and Gilbert and Sullivan matter? For that matter do Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, and "The Princess Bride"?

Ironically, when I mentioned "Fahrenheit 451" later in the class, about half a dozen of them knew the book. I pointed out that it was by Ray Bradbury, the old guy we saw in that video earlier in the class. They hadn't made the connection, but at least they knew the work.

I felt myself defossilize, albeit only for a minute.