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John Farr

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Escape From Banality: A Cultural Road Map For Our Children

Posted: 03/18/09 05:58 PM ET

Tell me if you agree with the following assessment of contemporary life, and if you do concur, then let me know why you're not scared, or angry.

First, we're all moving at the speed of light, but we're not necessarily more productive. We receive more messages than ever before -- both online and off -- but they are mostly trite or trivial. Still we must take the time to scan and delete them.

Serious culture is in serious decline: museums, symphonies and theatres are struggling, newspapers are dying out, and the publishing business is contracting. Who has the energy and attention span to read a substantive book anymore? Or watch a heavy movie? Maybe our parents, if they're lucky enough to be retired.

There's no point anyway, is there? Instead of reading the whole paper, we can scan the headlines on our PCs. Rather than sit through an entire movie, however great, we can just catch the best scenes on YouTube.

There can be little doubt that culture today is increasingly short-form, and almost entirely "pop" in nature, with not much "crackle", and precious little "snap". Interested in the arts? Well, go to Huffington's entertainment page and check out how Amy Winehouse may have beaten up one of her fans in a drug-induced rage. Or how Julia Roberts could not prevent herself from spouting four letter words on late night TV. Or the latest behind-the-scenes machinations on everyone's favorite reality show. Does everyone care but me?

Those of a certain age can still remember life before the internet, when we received markedly less communication, but of a more meaningful sort (it was called a "letter"); where we actually took time to read good books, and where the love of language was celebrated in the written and spoken word. We can still hold fast to these conventions, which offer a healthy counterpoint to this increasingly banal and fragmented contemporary world.

But what about our children?

When not overly stressed about their studies or their futures, our kids are mostly on X-box or going to the movies to hear potty humor or see people and things blown up. Or they may be texting one another: "u r 2 cute." They don't seem to read much unless they are forced to for school. My impression is that their expressive language skills are weaker than ours were, since they've grown so accustomed to speaking in cyberspace shorthand...ever notice how most every sentence they utter contains the word "like"?

Also, as a film commentator, I cannot help lamenting how many adolescent age kids don't know who Charlie Chaplin was...or for that matter, Gary Cooper or James Cagney.

The list of my shortcomings as a parent could fill ten more blogs, but one positive aspect was a conscious effort to give our four kids a cultural grounding that would expand their horizons beyond the slick, superficial here-and-now.

From infancy, they were constantly hearing all different kinds of music, from standards to jazz, blues and soul to classic sixties rock. They were also exposed to black and white movies -- the Marx Brothers, old Errol Flynn swashbucklers, To Kill A Mockingbird, Twelve Angry Men, and more.

The key here was not worrying about the kids' initial reactions to what they saw or heard. They sometimes claimed to hate what they were experiencing, because at the time it seemed alien, and they felt coerced. However, ten years later, they admitted they appreciated it... even then.

Also, I made our children read recreationally. I remember my brother and I had to be forced- my father would have said "trained"- to do it as well. On a rainy day in summer, we went to the library, found a book, came home and went to our respective rooms to read for one hour. No choice, no debate. Nearly forty years later, reading remains an integral part of my life- and a continual source of pleasure and comfort.

What worked for us in this area was tapping into our kids' distinct identities and interests. One son loved basketball- we gave him Bill Russell's biography. Another wanted to be a stand-up comic, so he got a book by Woody Allen. They read these titles because there was something in it for them, but at the same time, they were unconsciously cultivating an appreciation of what literature adds to the human experience.

Last week, my sixteen year old was proudly showing me his Louis Armstrong iPod playlist, while his younger brother raved about Steve McQueen's performance in Bullitt. Then my daughter confided how much the film Marty had taught her at an early age about the joy and heartbreak of romance.

That is the delayed, but no less sweet, reward of assuming an active and early role in indoctrinating your kids to the best of arts and culture. In doing so, you are boosting their ability to think critically (eg, know junk when they see it), but most important, you are helping enrich their quality of life, both now and down the road.

Besides the capacity to love, what better gift could we pass on to them?

 

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