Learning from the Past

I was born in the year 1968.  This profoundly tumultuous year in our country’s history marked a critical moment of our culture’s evolution.  Baby Boomers were coming of age, and a daring counterculture had by this time stood forward to challenge traditions and conventions that had prevailed for generations.  This was the height of the Vietnam War, and it was the year that witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Also, demonstrators clashed with Chicago police that summer at the Democratic National Convention.

Prior to this, many of our culture’s deepest values and practices changed very slowly, if at all.  Norms such as the single-income family prevailed. Men typically wore short hair, neatly combed. Many–not all–married women remained at home to raise children and tend to the household.  Manufacturing represented a much larger component of our nation’s economy, and many workers could realistically hope to thrive on careers connected with that sector. Movies did not yet require a ratings system, and television networks lived up to high standards of public decency.  The recording industry could only shock the sensibilities of the public with long hair or with dancing that by today’s standards would seem only remotely suggestive. Grown-ups dressed up to go out; children learned manners. To survivors of the Great Depression and World War II, this innocent, wholesome landscape matched in many ways what they had envisioned for their children.

Profound questions and yearnings lurked behind the patina of appearances, however.  Americans who were not white, male, Christian, or heterosexual had strictly limited prospects and opportunities compared to those of the favored profile.  Our culture’s institutions oozed racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. Interracial marriage provoked the vilest scorn; gays and lesbians largely lived in denial or in secret.  Our collective mindset could not even conceive of a transgendered individual.

So, during the late 1960’s, the counterculture led the campaign to discard the calcified framework of a society so unfair and so biased.  Everything from appearances to mannerisms to pastimes to traditions to courtesies to values to expectations of ourselves and others changed drastically.  Much of this liberated and empowered people. As a society, we needed this.

And yet, in many ways, we may have missed important opportunities to adapt our practices and conventions to reflect and reinforce our evolving understanding of every human being’s worth.  As we cast away the columns and beams of our culture and traditions, we failed in many instances to replace them. We sacrificed the heights from which we looked out on the world and took up a vantage point on the very ground beneath us.

Being white, male, heterosexual, and Christian, I invite criticism, perhaps, to question the course we have taken as a culture–even while I celebrate our advances.  And it may do better to consider our future as our culture evolves ever more rapidly, and with technology and societal fragmentation posing so many challenges to our humanity.  Indeed, my career as an educator impels me to do just that.

Still, I find myself looking back to a time before I was born, lamenting that those before me did not carry a few important items forward to sustain us.


Sonnet: Postrevolution

It pleases me to see that we have learned
It’s wrong to block a woman from a job.
Our country has done right now to have spurned
The notion of night justice by a mob.
God smiles to know we’ve come to understand
Our worship of Him takes on many forms.
We do well, too, to scorn the false demand
Of life so cruelly bound by long held norms.
The Planners’ Draft five decades since begun
To clear away Convention’s cramped confines
Has yielded forth a landscape bathed in sun
And hills where souls trace fancied, free designs.
But how this sweet utopia’s a mess:
The way we walk, speak, drive, write, eat, and dress!

8 thoughts on “Learning from the Past

  1. Paul – While acknowledging the advances we have begun to make in the social justice arena, I too have often lamented the losses in areas of morality, ties to community (be it family, neighborhood, or otherwise), and the worth of each person. You have shared such sentiments in a profoundly compelling and poetic way. Thank you for expressing a many layered sentiment with such finesse.

    1. Thanks, Deb, for the kind assessment–and for assuring me that the spirit of my thoughts came across. My mother often jokes that I was born 40 years old. I often think, however, that if I had been born 40 years earlier I would have had a richer perspective.

  2. Wow what a slice! Had to read it a few times! Thinking back to the year you were born and relating the changes in culture, society me contemplate big questions, issues. I think no matter the time, it’s respect that is at the heart of all our interactions with others. Thanks for sharing and making me think!

    1. So kind of you to read and comment on my post. Excellent point about the timelessness of respect. Now that you point it out, I can understand that I was instinctively acting on that concept when I was younger and social paths seemed murky. I appreciate that illumination.

  3. This is such a well-written piece with strong sentences and clear thoughts. This was my favorite line: And yet, in many ways, we may have missed important opportunities to adapt our practices and conventions to reflect and reinforce our evolving understanding of every human being’s worth.
    I was 13 in 1968. That was a very, very hard time to be a young teen. Your writing raises so many good questions that have often puzzled me, too.

    1. In thanking you for reading and commenting, I wish to add that the line you cite is precisely the thought I agonized most to put into words. When I finally had it, I was still not sure it would put the entire concept across. I truly appreciate the validation.

  4. I absolutely see and to some extent agree with what you have observed and pondered. I wonder if “Northeastern tri-state area” also needs to be factored into your query. Cultural advances vary. Have other areas of this big place we call our country seen similar shifts?

    1. Thanks, Suzanne. That geographical qualification does make sense, as I am very much the Yankee. The dynamics elsewhere in the country were different during the year I describe.

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