A coupla weeks back, a student asked an odd question. She asked how the members of the Second Continental Congress got to Philadelphia to work on the Declaration of Independence. Before I got the chance to answer that question, she asked another, much braver one: “Did they have cars?”
I hope I stopped the teasing and tittering before it got started by explaining that cars, as we recognize them today, wouldn’t be invented for another 100 years or so.
Anyhow, that “silly” question got me thinking. Consider that to the average teenager, cars have always been around. Their parents and grandparents grew up in a world with cars all over the place. We can easily grasp the idea that cars haven’t always been as advanced as they are today, but visualizing a world without cars– and I mean going beyond the intellectual knowledge that cars haven’t always been there, I mean really visualizing what life was like as if we were there– grows increasingly difficult with each passing generation. (Consider also that there isn’t much history taught in elementary school, and if you haven’t sought out this sort of information, and if it hasn’t come up in a history class by the time you’re in my classroom, it makes sense you wouldn’t really know when the automobile came around.)
Look at telephones. Today’s high school seniors were born in a world where cell phones weren’t ubiquitous, but they probably don’t remember it well. I remember pre-ubiquity pretty darn well: it was much more difficult to get in touch with people, cordless phones were a big deal, you used pay phones more often, caller ID was less common, prank calls were more common, and so on. My parents remember the days of someone from the telephone company coming over to install or repair your AT&T phone– and you were stuck with AT&T because there were no other phone companies. My grandparents, once they finally got phones, had party lines.
I remember a time before cell phones (yes, they were invented before I was born, but they didn’t trickle down to Joe Average until 10-15 years ago). I can imagine what the world was like without any sort of phones, but I don’t think I can truly appreciate what that world was like. And I think that makes it harder to count the ways in which the world is more awesome than ever before.
The faster technology advances, and the more that people are born into an increasingly advanced world, the harder it is for people to understand their ancestors’ everyday lives and to appreciate the material progress of mankind.
I probably wouldn’t have liked this when I was a teenager, but I’d like to see some sort of lesson or ritual or holiday that involves living with the technology of generations past. Some people might call that “camping”, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean a 1963 day (and night) where you live with the technology of 1963– no cell phones, expensive long-distance calls, music from the radio or the record player, a black-and-white TV, etc. (“Kids, this is how your grandparents lived.”) I mean a 1923 day with a party line phone, limited indoor plumbing, limited access to cars, no TV, maybe a pre-talkie movie, and no microwave or fast food. (“Kids, this is how your great- or great-great-grandparents lived.”) I mean an 1873 day with no cars or TV or phones or electric light. Let’s even throw in the clothing of the time, though I wouldn’t throw in the medicine or lack thereof of the time, because we’re trying to cultivate a sense of history here, not bring back the plague. Maybe we could also get the town/city/surrounding community to tone down the light pollution at night so we could actually see some stars.
Living that way for a day and night (though three to five days per time period would really drive it home) would do a much better job of showing kids how we used to live than any course or lecture or dinnertime story. It would be a far more powerful way of envisioning and connecting to our pasts. Sure, it’d probably be miserable to live through as a kid, but take solace in imagining your own grandchildren griping about “2013 Day” and having to make do with a smartphone that wasn’t built into your hand or not having a heads-up display projected on your contact lens.
When I went to college, I had a PS/2 with 4 MB of RAM and 128 MB of hard drive space when I went to college. When my dad went to college, he used punch cards to write simple addition programs on a computer the size of a room. When my grandfather went to college, he had a pencil, a slide rule, and some paper. My great-grandfather didn’t go to college; he had a shovel and a railroad wrench.