A short while ago I posted a piece about how few of the phrases of my cultural experience have remained in the awareness of my eighteen to twenty-two year old students. That was summer and I was feeling old and a bit nostalgic. The fall semester brings with it an intensity and, I believe, an intellectual rigor that requires me to clarify this point, adding a little nuance where before I was (if amusing) pretty heavy-handed.
This revisiting started when one of them told me a story about how her My Chemical Romance t-shirt convinced her parents that her fandom for the group was somehow dangerous, and I flashed back instantly to a black Queen t-shirt with Freddie Mercury’s famous illustrated crest consisting of the band members’ four zodiac signs — one of which, his own, was Virgo, which he chose to depict as a Richard Dadd-like fairy nymph with one breast ever-so-slightly revealed. From this, it was clear that all four of them were sinful brutes bound for hell, and stayed that way until my mother accidentally saw an interview with Roger Meddows Taylor on WNBC’s Live at Five with Chuck Scarborough when they were touring in New York. I came home from school that afternoon and she said to me, “What an articulate and knowledgeable young man he is.” I’VE BEEN TRYING TO TELL YOU THAT, MOM.
So intermediate conclusion A: the generations aren’t getting any worse; the gap isn’t any bigger; it’s the same gap and it always will be. So I should be careful the next time I bang my head against the classroom wall because they’re unsure about Spiro Agnew.
But then came the second incident and I began to realize that my head-banging concern isn’t really about generation gaps. It’s about knowledge gaps. Let me be careful to say, “In my experience” rather than “When I was their age…” or “Back in the good old days” as I recount this.
When I went to college my English major friends and I thought it was cool to know all about the obscure, occult, and occasionally Satanic. My English professors, many of them Catholic priests and nearly all of them products of Catholic higher education, smiled knowingly at us and handed us Dante and Milton and Marlowe and Goethe and Dore and Blake and Mather and Bunyan and Edwards and Jung and made us write papers.
Last week I chatted with a poetry student with some kind of Celtic charm tattooed on her inner right wrist who wanted to write about it and had not yet worked with Dante and Milton and Marlowe and Goethe and Dore and Blake and Mather and Bunyan and Edwards and Jung. Not too strong to say there were some she hadn’t even heard of. And she wants to write poetry.
I know, I’m an old fuddy-duddy English teacher who thinks that everybody ought to read The Great Works. And the Modern World (especially the Modern Higher Educational World) is impatient with me because my students are part of a Global Generation of Technology and Multiculturalism and I want them to read Dead White European Males. Then I think about a black t-shirt I could have made up, with Blake engravings and quotes from Goethe which ANY parent would shun, if they had any sense of decency, and how much my students would probably like it. I get to grin wickedly at that, of course, because I Know. So the Generation Gap is sad not because they don’t know or value the Dead White European Male canon, but because they have no idea how freaking subversive it is. How much fun they could have with it. How its articulation and knowledge could present itself as the Enemy of the Establishment. How their parents could point at Faustian legend and say, “I don’t know what this generation is coming to!” How if my mother had seen that same fairy nymph hanging at the Tate instead of across my chest she would have been Art not Debauchery. (Well, in my mother’s defense let me say she was no hypocrite and probably wouldn’t have liked it at the Tate either. But she’d have acknowledged its knowledge and articulation just like she did eventually with my Roger.)
Conclusion B: My students deserve to learn The Canon. Imagine their delight as they realize that their vampire shows, their Once Upon a Times, their Luciferian tattoos; all the trappings of their supernatural horror freak show Coven Magic-cards dragon lore Game-of-Thrones Harry-Potter stuff is OLD, older than their parents, older than me (!), old, older than my professors who got their Ph.D.s in 1964, older than Tolkien, and still worth reading today.
In tomorrow’s New York Times Book Review (God Bless the Times Weekender delivery!), Leslie Jamison writes a “Bookends” piece about the banality of sentimental writing. She wonders if we avoid it because we fear it will root us in the trite, the overused, the common. In our pursuit of the Fresh and Invigorating, some poets today don’t see the need for the Dead White Past. Writers don’t study literature in a classroom, goes the logic; writers Write. Of course writers write. But considering that, a day and a half after my meeting with that poetry student, her Facebook cover page changed to the Dore illustration of Lucifer Cast From Heaven, I get the funny feeling she’ll soon be writing stuff her parents ought to be proud of but will more likely be horrified by. And that, my friends, is the real Generation Gap. These parents today don’t know a damn thing about Milton.