Macro Naiveté

It’s one thing to facilitate an attitude change within a student. It’s another to do so within a nation.

One question quickly comes to mind: Have there been any national attitude changes in, say, the past half-century? Well, it just so happens that I was around during those years, and I can think of five dramatic changes just off the top of my head:

1) Public smoking. When I was a kid, not only did my parents and all of my friends’ parents smoke, they all smoked anywhere they pleased. (To grasp the mood, watch any episode of Mad Men.) Looking out my New York cab window, I almost feel sorry for those huddled masses puffing away on the cold sidewalk in front of the skyscraper. (Somehow, it’s hard to imagine Don Draper joining them.)

2) Drinking & Driving. It used to be macho to brag about how you managed to steer the car home after a night of drunken revelry. Not cool today. (NRBQ, one of my favorite bands ever, even has a song about it. Download “Designated Driver.”)

3) Racial Jokes. Also, not cool – anywhere in the USA – but standard fare in my youth. As a kid, the only non-whites I saw on TV were athletes, entertainers, or actors in roles of subservience. After Dr. King turned the tide, my kids grew up channel surfing through Obama and Cornel West in search of their favorite shows. I’ve witnessed a similar evolution regarding jokes about sexual orientation. (See Eddie Murphy’s retraction of his homosexual jokes in Delirious, his 1983 blockbuster video.)

4) Special Needs. When I was in elementary school, all the Special Needs kids were partitioned off from all of us so as to ensure that we would never cross paths. I’m ashamed to say that we derisively referred to them as U.G.s, an abbreviation of their coded designation: Ungraded. Today I have a son on the autism spectrum. Last spring I watched him sing in his school chorus….. along with all the other kids.

5) We Recycle. A friend of mine calls environmentalism “the new opiate of the masses.” (See my new Prius. See the blue “We Recycle” box on my front yard every Monday morning.)

All of these inspiring national attitude changes have occurred within my lifetime. To be balanced, there have also been some troubling ones. I first encountered a kid who cut him-/herself probably 20 years ago. What began as a shocking occurrence has evolved all too quickly into a national problem. (In Nation of Wimps, author Hara Marano cites a study where 17% of a sample of Cornell and Princeton students had cut themselves.) I have observed similar trends with anorexia and the medication of students. Perhaps most troubling has been the rise of the helicopter parent. Marano suggests that many parents are “hallucinating hazards to keep kids from exercising the separation that nature has prepared them for.” Scary.

Whether inspirational or troubling, there is ample evidence to show that national attitudes definitely can and do change. So, let’s get busy.

Onward, Malcolm Gauld