“People in the future won’t be able to talk to the Titanic’s survivors, or their ancestors.”

Either this is the most blatant truism ever penned, or it’s an example of an inability to keep the generations sorted out. Judging from experience, I have to say it could be either one.

Student writers do have a tendency to state the obvious. They understand that laying down a base proposition or base fact is a good way to set up a line of reasoning, but they don’t quite manage to inject a point of view that would justify spending writer and reader energy on the sentence.

To be fair, I have to say that I did for several years assign an essay on two poems about the sinking of the Titanic, and this sentence probably came from one of those essays. That was in the years when the number of survivors had fallen into the low single digits (but before 2009, when the very last survivor died), and my student may have been moved to comment along those lines. But why she would have thought about the survivors’ ancestors—obviously long gone—in that context I cannot say. Why would anyone want to talk to the ancestors of the Titanic‘s survivors, anyway?

That’s why I think she was one of those students who can’t tell an ancestor from a descendant. I’ve had students claim to have had descendants who came over on the Mayflower, and others express hopes that their ancestors’ lives will be better than their own. Somewhere in my Book of Horrors, I’m sure, I’ve transcribed other examples; but this is a busy morning, and a search will have to wait for another day.

Meanwhile, I can spend a minute or two reminiscing about the distant days of my youth, when teachers and television alike used to fantasize about the World of the Future. Personal airplanes to travel around cities; meals in the form of tiny pills; expanded brain capacity that would enable direct thought transfer; houses that would clean themselves. (I’m still waiting hopefully for that last one!) The tag line was always something to the effect that we couldn’t know for sure what the future would hold, but whatever it was would be amazing.…

And in that case, maybe my student is totally wrong here, and her truism, or generational confusion, is all false assumption. Maybe future generations will be able to talk to those dead-and-gone worthies. They could ask the Titanic survivors what it was like on the ship that night, or maybe whether they had struggled with survivor guilt as they continued living their lives and thought about how many couldn’t do the same. Then they could ask the ancestors whether there had been any premonition, in childbed, that a descendant would narrowly survive death by drowning in a cold, cold sea.

I think, though, really, that it was just careless writing. Alas.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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