The Good Old Days

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In her brilliant New Yorker essay this week, TV critic Emily Nussbaum likens the last election to comedy writing, saying essentially that we’ve just elected Don Rickles or Andrew Dice Clay or the cast of South Park. And she writes about the toxicity of nostalgia, citing a South Park episode about its own election fervor:

Meanwhile, an addictive snack called Member Berries—they whisper “ ’Member? ’Member?”—fills the white men of the town with longing for the past, mingling “Star Wars” references with “ ’Member when there weren’t so many Mexicans?”

It’s easy, when we think that things are impossibly confusing, when we think we’re getting a bad deal, to imagine the remedy as reverting to some prior era when things were still good, before the fall. But really, there’s almost never a good old days to go back to, when you look closely.

Higher ed is like that. Which of these ideal, golden pasts do we want to revert to?

Do we want to go back to the 19th century, in which only the male children of power went to college, in order to be groomed to take over the family empire? In which women were relegated to “normal schools,” in preparation to be elementary teachers?

Do we want to go back to the 1930’s, when education most often ended after grade school, and only single-digit percentages of adults had college degrees?

Do we want to go back to the 1950s, when racially segregated colleges were the norm? (I was astonished to see that George Wallace’s University of Alabama “stand in the schoolhouse door,” which I would have placed about 1955, was actually in 1963. “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”)

Do we want to go back to the 1970s, when we still talked casually about “co-eds,” as though it was a novelty for women and men to be in the same classrooms (classrooms taught almost exclusively by men)?

There isn’t any “back” that I want to go back to. No prior generation holds the prepackaged answers for tomorrow’s problems. We’ve got to face them on our own, imperfectly, knowing that we will create our own unintended consequences for the next generation to solve.