Cultural Touchstones

 Several years ago a dear friend of mine living in Israel told me about his wife. He had been married before, the divorce had been difficult, and he waited a long time until he was ready to find love again. When he did meet his future wife, he realized that their shared cultural touchstones was a part of why he fell in love with her.

Because both of them were born and raised in the US in the same generation, they watched the same television shows: Mork and Mindy, Welcome Back Kotter, Six Million Dollar Man, and All in the Family. They listened to the same music: the Eagles, Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin, and Bruce Springsteen. And they lived through the same political changes: Watergate, the oil crises, Roe v. Wade, and Three Mile Island. They remembered where they were when the astronauts landed on the moon, when Woodstock took place, when Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in tennis.

My friend knows how important those shared references and experiences are. They create an automatic connection between people.

Beloit College understands this phenomenon all too well. Every September Beloit publishes, the Mindset List, a list of some 70 events, people, and things that had stopped being cultural touchstones 18 years before, the year the current Freshmen were born. This year’s list addresses those things which were no longer relevant in 1994. It’s not only fun to see what this class missed out on, it’s also a walk down memory lane for those of us who are older than 18.

First the whimsy:

In 2012 Benjamin Braddock, “having given up both a career in plastics and a relationship with Mrs. Robinson,” could be the grandfather of a member of the entering class.

TheTwilight Zone involves vampires, not Rod Serling.”

The current freshmen “can’t picture people actually carrying luggage through airports rather than rolling it.”

“They have never seen an airplane ‘ticket.’”

I’m sad that the freshness of Benjamin Braddock and the magnificence of Rod Serling cannot truly be appreciated by today’s 18 year olds. Both were part of the paradigm shift from more conventional entertainment to a more eclectic artistic creativity.

Then there’s the real sign of the times. “For most of their lives, maintaining relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world has been a woman’s job in the State Department.” In addition to this, “women have always piloted war planes and space shuttles.” Both of these facts were unimaginable until the later part of the 80s. Women have come a long way.

But in the past several years, the most obvious changes that have taken place from 1994 until today have to do with technology.

The list tells us that those born in 1994 have always lived in cyberspace.

Because they can find most of what they want to know online, they have no need for “a new set of bound encyclopedias on the bookshelf.”

They may wonder why “outdated icons with images of floppy discs for ‘save,’ a telephone for ‘phone,’ and a snail mail envelope for ‘mail’ have oddly decorated their tablets and smart phone screens.” For most of them, these objects have no relationship to their daily lives.

They use technology to stay connected with each other because they “probably are the most tribal generation in history who despise being separated from contact with their similar-aged friends.” This includes “enjoying school and summer camp memories with a digital yearbook,” rather than actual books filled with photos developed from a roll of film.

It’s clear how central technology is to their lives. It is certainly central to most of our lives today no matter how old we are. But those who are just entering college have a facility and comfortability with technology that many of us who are older will never have.

While technology enriches our lives, it also takes something away. The connections we had in earlier years were simpler and more immediate. The 60s and 70s weren’t utopian. I very clearly remember our gender, race, and class segregated society and I don’t want to go back to that. But I would like to recapture the pleasure of neighbors gathering on their front steps after dinner; waving hi to the people next door or across the street as we walk to the store, maybe even stopping to talk to them, rather than having our eyes glued to the tiny screen of our smart phones.

Each year this list reminds me of the important parts of my life that I have lost over time as well as the beneficial parts that have been added.

As we look through the Mindset List and smile at the those things that now seem antiquated, let’s remember to hold on to those things that came before and are still worthwhile, as we embrace whatever innovations are to come.

1 thought on “Cultural Touchstones

  1. Catherine Nelson

    Yet another excellent job, Rabbi. I enjoyed a few giggles and sighs. The last three paragraphs resonate especially well for me. Keep up the good work!


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