“Since 1992 it seems as though children and young adults have been losing respect for their elders.”

Another sentence that suggests students have NO sense of history!

To be fair, if I require students to actually know what they’re talking about when they talk about the past, I really can’t criticize a 19-year-old who attests to a phenomenon “since” the year she was born—although how good a witness she is of the years 1992-1996 is questionable.

But for those of us who are older than 19, this sentence is a howler. Sure, children and young adults really respected their elders…until one fateful day in 1992, when…what happened? What caused the erosion of respect to begin?

I’ve just spent a  browsy hour on Greg Duncan’s site “Gregsite,” and then a few more minutes on Wikipedia, looking at the events of 1992. The usual wars, earthquakes, assassinations, celebrity marriages and divorces: plenty to make people lose heart generally. Maybe the loss of respect for elders was begun by the death of an important elder—Alex Hailey, Hailie Selassie, Allan Bloom, Eric Sevareid, Lee Salk, S.I. Hayakawa, the Marlboro Man, Gorgeous George, Superman? maybe by bad behavior by an elder—the beating of Rodney King; the Ruby Ridge shootings; the siege of Sarajevo; the separation of Prince Charles and Diana; the Iraq disarmament crisis; the crimes of Leona Helmsly, John Gotti, Mike Tyson; Sinéad O’Connor’s ripping up Pope John Paul II’s picture on television; NYC’s installation of the first public pay toilet in the U.S.; the moment when President George H.W. Bush vomited into the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister?  maybe by the change or loss of an important icon—Golden Girls going off the air, Punch ending publication, Lucy hiking her fee for Pyshiatric Help? or maybe, if your orientation is different from mine, the election of Bill Clinton, the decision of the Church of England to admit women to the priesthood, John Paul II’s apology to Galileo, or the one-day job-swap between Imus in the Morning and Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker?

Okay, that paragraph was really fun to put together. But I don’t see anything that would make that year more likely than any other to mark the beginning of American young people’s loss of respect for their elders. We always lose valuable individuals to death, grown-ups always do awful things, idols always stagger into the sunset on their clay feet.

I know when my loss of respect for elders began: when I saw the televised footage of police turning fire hoses on people trying to register to vote, and of mounted police bearing down on the marchers in Selma. And when I then tried to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which my elders had taught me to believe. So as an individual I can put my finger on the moment. I wouldn’t generalize that to the history of the world, though.

But every generation complains that the young no longer respect their elders (except Gwendolen Fairfax of The Importance of Being Earnest, who laments that “the old-fashioned respect for the young is fast dying out,” one of Oscar Wilde’s wonderful cliché reversals).

And so every generation would laugh at my earnest student, speaking only for the time she knows and therefore sounding as if she thinks everything was just hunky-dory before then—in other words, as if she is totally ignorant of history. And here, I guess, we come full circle.

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

3 responses to ““Since 1992 it seems as though children and young adults have been losing respect for their elders.”

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