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The Disappearing Ink of Our Cultural Literacy

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Last summer, I was driving around Georgia with a female colleague who was approximately 40 years old and, for whatever reason, the conversation made its way to the subject of music and I casually mentioned Tommy, the rock opera by The Who.

"What's that? Never heard of it," my colleague said.

I was astonished. "You never heard of The Who or Tommy? I asked.

"'Tommy,'" she answered.

Well you could have knocked me over with a praline. Having come of age in the 1960s, I must have played the LP Tommy a hundred times, if not more. I probably can recite most of the lyrics by heart. But more than that, Tommy was a major Broadway play for years in the 1990s. We're not talking about ancient history here. The Who actually performed Tommy at the Metropolitan Opera House back in the day and played "Pinball Wizard" -- the big hit from Tommy -- at the Super Bowl halftime show about three years ago. This was no obscure song like "In a Gadda Da Vida" (Maybe you never heard of that and that's okay but, FYI, it was recorded by Iron Butterfly).

I retold this story this week to another colleague who is in her 30s. "I never heard of that either," she said.

What's going on here? It made me think of a recent conversation with my 22-year-old son where I mentioned that I had seen the documentary on George Harrison and thought it was pretty good. "Who's George Harrison?" he asked.

What??!!!!

He then recognized the name in the context of The Beatles but, without that, no way. I mean, George was one of the most famous and photographed people on the face of the earth not so long ago.

This is not an isolated case. I was speaking at a major college recently when the professor told me her communication students had never heard of Walter Cronkite or -- get this -- Mike Wallace! (This was one week before he died and presumably everyone now knows what a great broadcaster he was, but who knows?)

Cultural literacy was a catch-phrase not so long ago and basically, it's the concept that we all need to know certain things about our culture to function intelligently in society. Like the reference to someone having an "Achilles heel" or being able to name the four Beatles. These days, that whole idea seems to be disappearing like invisible ink on a page and I'm not sure why.

Is it because there is so much information overload? Maybe. Am I just an old goat? I don't think so. When I was in my 20s, I certainly had heard of Bing Crosby and knew who he was though I didn't have any of his records. I knew who Eric Sevareid was though I never watched him on television.

These days, some of the young -- though smart when it comes to the Internet and Twitter and Facebook -- are kind of clueless when it comes to cultural touchstones. Not so me. I've kept up. I've heard of Lil Wayne and Zooey Deschanel. I even have their records, er, I mean cassettes, er, I mean MP3 files on that whatchamacall it -- my iPod.