Today’s guest blogger is Jennifer Finney Boylan, Professor of English at Colby College. She is the author of twelve books, including the Falcon Quinn series for young adults and the memoir trilogy She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders (2003), I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted (2008) and Stuck in the Middle With You: Parenthood in Three Genders (forthcoming in 2013).
Comedian Michael O’Donoghue once wrote a poem that began, “A blizzard blew an Eskimo way down to Egypt-land. He found they had no word for snow, and he no word for sand.” The poem goes on to describe the Egyptian and the Eskimo’s search for a common language, “the thing that each man shares.”
O’Donoghue was, of course, better known as “Mr. Mike,” the curious performer on Saturday Night Live perhaps best known for his imitation of the singing group Tony Orlando and Dawn undergoing–well, let’s just say a particularly unfortunate accident.
You’d know about this if you were a fan of Saturday Night Live. There was a time when I could be fairly certain that the students in my classes were just that, and that they’d know what I was talking about if I invoked one of the show’s many catchphrases. I could safely assume we’d share some other things as well–a knowledge of a dozen canonical British and American novels and short stories, for instance; the music of Beethoven, or the Rolling Stones, perhaps; or the plots of certain films, say, Pulp Fiction, or Citizen Kane, or the Princess Bride.
As an English teacher, finding stories “that each man (and woman) shares” is not an unimportant task for me. In order to illustrate the structure of dramatic action, or the function of character, it surely helps if I’m able to provide examples, using works that my students already know. If I’m describing a “dramatic vehicle,” for instance- that piece of action that marks the ending of Act I and the beginning of Act II– it’s very handy to be able point one out. The moment Luke Skywalker finds his aunt and uncle murdered, for instance, is a pretty clear dividing line in that character’s story, as is the chapter in Twain when Huck Finn escapes from Pap by faking his own death.
But Star Wars, to my surprise, is fading from the forefront of my students’ awareness. They know it, some of them, anyway, but its mythology is beginning to feel dated. Huck Finn, it’d be fair to say, is even more remote.
When I first started teaching, finding a common cultural currency with my students was easy. For one thing, at age 27, I wasn’t a whole lot older than they were. We read the same books; we danced to the same tunes. But now, after almost thirty years in the classroom, finding common ground is a challenge. I’m aware that this is largely a function of age, but it’s not just my students that I find it difficult to overlap with, culturally– it’s everyone. More than ever, Americans seem to share almost nothing–not books, not music, not news. In large measure, we no longer even share facts.
In the eighties and nineties, I could reasonably expect that strangers might have some awareness of a television show like M*A*S*H, perhaps, or Hill Street Blues, or The Cosby Show, or Seinfeld. But fewer people watch television now; in 2011, the Nielsen Company noted that for the first time in twenty years, the number of American households with at least one functioning television set actually declined– to 114.7 million from 115.9. And book sales during the same period also declined 2.5%– even as sales of e-books doubled.
For a while, I counted on The Wizard of Oz as the last work that everyone might have seen (or read). But this spring my sons’ school chose Oz as its spring musical, and the girl cast as the talking apple tree admitted she had never heard of it before. (“How would you like it if someone came up and picked something off of you?”) It’s probably no coincidence that that apple tree wasn’t American; she had come to the school for the year from the Czech Republic. We talked at great length together about Vaclev Havel, an individual who loomed considerably larger in her mythology than L. Frank Baum. It surprised her, a little, that the Americans she met didn’t know any of his plays.
The last piece of common ground I can dependably rely on now is Harry Potter; students arriving on campus now, of course, were raised on it. There’s even talk in Admissions circles about something called the “Hogwarts Quotient” in higher education–the degree to which a cafeteria, for instance, resembles the Great Hall. (I think Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, has the country’s highest Hogwarts Quotient.) Our family read all seven of those books out loud, so I’m familiar enough with Harry Potter to talk to my students about the way those plots are structured. But a lot of other adults that I know– especially the ones without children–just give me a blank look if I’m foolish enough to start talking about horcruxes, or dogbane potion, or the unforgivable cruciatus curse.
Maybe it’s a good thing that there are fewer common cultural touchstones now. It means that the world is no longer dominated by a single–usually straight, white, male–vision. But it seems a shame that the things that we do have in common are so often dumber than we are. My students might not all share a knowledge of Twain, or Morrison, or Dickinson. But they’ve all seen a youtube video of Miss Teen South Carolina, or viewed a hilarious Youtube photograph of someone’s dancing cat, or sung along with “Peanut Butter Jelly Time.”
Michael O’Donoghue’s Egyptian and Eskimo, after searching for years, do at length discover the unexpected thing that each man shares. His poem concludes: “And in the end, to their surprise, they found that thing was bears.” Some readers might be stunned to learn that bears, above all else, are what bring us together, but then it should be remembered that O’Donoghue was also the author of “Least-Loved Bedtime Stories” and “The Little Engine that Died.”
You could enjoy more comedy in the spirit of Mr. Mike, if you wanted, by watching the September 15th premiere of Saturday Night Live’s 28th season. The host is going to be Seth McFarlane.
I’d watch the premiere myself. Except that I have no idea who that is.