Shared culture

Frank Bruni in an op-ed piece in the NYT on April 8th, “The Water Cooler Runs Dry”, which began:

If you’re closing in on 50 but want to feel much, much older, teach a college course. I’m doing that now, at 49, and hardly a class goes by when I don’t make an allusion that prompts my students to stare at me as if I just dropped in from the Paleozoic era.

Last week I mentioned the movie “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Only one of the 16 students had heard of it. I summarized its significance, riffling through the Depression, with which they were familiar, and Jane Fonda’s career, with which they weren’t. “Barbarella” went sailing over their heads. I didn’t dare test my luck with talk of leg warmers and Ted Turner.

I once brought up Vanessa Redgrave. Blank stares. Greta Garbo. Ditto. We were a few minutes into a discussion of an essay that repeatedly invoked Proust’s madeleine when I realized that almost none of the students understood what the madeleine signified or, for that matter, who this Proust fellow was.

And these are young women and men bright and diligent enough to have gained admission to Princeton University, which is where our disconnect is playing out.

The bulk of that disconnect, obviously, is generational. Seemingly all of my students know who Gwyneth Paltrow is. And with another decade or two of reading and living and being subjected to fossils like me, they’ll assemble a richer inventory of knowledge and trivia, not all of it present-day.

Surely that’s a contribution. But Bruni goes on the refer to what some commenters have labeled “the Balkanization of experience” or “the age of fracture”:

But the pronounced narrowness of the cultural terrain that they and I share — the precise limits of the overlap — suggests something additional at work. In a wired world with hundreds of television channels, countless byways in cyberspace and all sorts of technological advances that permit each of us to customize his or her diet of entertainment and information, are common points of reference dwindling? Has the personal niche supplanted the public square?

Both literally and figuratively, the so-called water-cooler show is fading fast, a reality underscored by a fact that I stumbled across in last week’s edition of The New Yorker: In the mid-1970s, when the sitcom “All in the Family” was America’s top-rated television series, more than 50 million people would tune in to a given episode. That was in a country of about 215 million.

I checked on the No. 1 series for the 2012-13 television season. It was “NCIS,” an episode of which typically drew fewer than 22 million people, even counting those who watched a recording of it within a week of its broadcast. That’s out of nearly 318 million Americans now.

That is, even people of the same generation seem to share much less than they used to, because they get (in fact, select) different inputs.

What experiences and knowledge people share is a complex subject. Some 35+ years ago, Ann Daingerfield Zwicky was teaching a freshman composition course at Ohio State and ran into an experience much like Bruni’s. She made some cultural allusion and was met by blank stares. Intrigued, she went on to poll the class.

She started with children’s literature, asking about very popular works like Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland. For each item, several students said they didn’t even recognize the titles. Knowing that almost all schools have students read one or more Shakespeare plays in high school, she was hoping that, say, Macbeth and Julius Caesar would be virtually universal. But no; English teachers each made their own selections, and their students knew only those (they didn’t read or watch things that weren’t assigned) and didn’t recognize allusions to others (surprisingly, even Romeo and Juliet).

Then she tried some popular-cultural items, and was astonished to find no uniform experience with popular tv shows, sports teams, and so on. A lot of shared experience, but with serious islands of its lack.

I wish there were some way to compare her experience with the current situation that Bruni describes. I’m as convinced as Bruni is that things have gotten worse, as evidenced by the stats he cites, and for good reason.

One Response to “Shared culture”

  1. Party of five | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] the Zippy, dealing with a phenomenon I looked at in this posting, where two contributions to the lack of shared culture are briefly examined: data overload that […]

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