Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Last week while talking with (and trying to impress) my two seventeen-year-old nieces, I mentioned that I had run into Robert Redford at his restaurant just up the hill from our home. The two stared at me with a gaze teenagers typically reserve for a lecture on the history of floor wax. After politely listening to me gush about Bob, one of the twins asked, “Who’s Robert Redhead?”
What?! They hadn’t seen The Sting?! They hadn’t watched Mr. Redford as the delightful Sundance Kid? Had the world gone mad? As I probed further, I learned Mr. Redford wasn’t the only older celebrity unknown to my nieces. In fact, the two were virtually unfamiliar with any stars, celebrities, or politicians of my generation. At first, I figured they didn’t watch TV or movies, but I quickly learned they could tell me the shade of Taylor Swift’s blush, write an entire book on Justin Bieber, and quote whole segments from Miley Cyrus’ latest movie.
How is it these two knew so much about their own times but virtually nothing of the movies, TV, or life experiences of anyone old enough to shave? When I was their age, even younger, I knew a great deal about my parents’ world—including their politicians, luminaries, and movie stars—because I watched dozens of films from the thirties and forties. In fact, I watched them with my parents.
As I congratulated myself on my own sense of history, it struck me that I had no reason to gloat. When I was growing up, my childhood world was perfectly organized to create an environment in which I not only associated with adults and adult things, but spent time learning and discussing life as it unfolded in front of us in our living rooms. We only had four TV channels and they were so lacking in programming that the stations gladly showed material from decades earlier—just to fill the airtime. And since we, like most families of the 50s, only had one TV set and most programs were family friendly, every evening we sat down together and watched a combination of old movies and primetime TV shows.
Why does any of this even matter? Realizing that my nieces were almost completely unaware of anything aged longer than, say, a can of Cheez Whiz got me to thinking. I began to mourn the loss of a simpler time when everyone—adults and children alike—could quote the same movies (“Badges! We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!”) and discuss the same current events. A time when entertainment wasn’t so enormously segmented so as to appeal to only fourteen-year-old boys who own a video game system or twenty-one-year-old single women looking for love . . . or a wedding dress.
What is cultural entertainment actually doing for our culture? If it’s not bringing us together, there’s a good chance it’s driving us apart. I fear we’ll eventually become so segmented that members in a specific niche of the population will have little, if anything, to discuss with people outside their very specific demographic. By becoming increasingly diverse in our tastes and interests, I fear we are limiting our ability to relate to diverse populations—including our own nieces and nephews.
I was discussing this issue with my partner Ron, when he knocked me off my “old fogey” soapbox with a message of hope. He and his twelve-year-old son Ben were talking with a neighbor when his neighbor asked Ben, “So young man, what do you think was George Washington’s greatest contribution to the country?” (Apparently this neighbor wasn’t into small talk). After thinking for a second, Ben responded, “Resigning his commission as general before accepting the presidency.” Ben then went on to explain that disconnecting himself from the military had helped Washington shape the nation into a republic rather than into a military state.
As you might guess, Ron was proud of his son’s insightful remarks. He was also rather astonished. How had his twelve-year-old son developed such an informed opinion about such a weighty topic? It turns out Ben routinely watched and loved the History Channel where he had seen several episodes on Washington’s life.
So, there is hope. In the “good old days” we created a common culture by watching (and reading) old-fashioned stories, enthusiastically discussing current issues and events from the past, and jointly building values that were shaped and conveniently portrayed in their widely shared entertainment venues.
Today we can do the same, not in spite of but with the help of the latest resources. But, in my opinion, only if we use the tools wisely. We may have to switch off a few video games and skip past a dozen or so TV exposés covering celebrity shenanigans, but if we’re willing to search, there’s a great deal of terrific scientific, artistic, and historical material out there that we can and should experience with our friends, relatives, and loved ones.
Of course, it’ll take effort. It’s time we stopped retiring to separate rooms and engaging in separate electronic activities. Instead, pick a program (or a book) of substance, sit down, experience it with your children, friends, and family members, and then discuss the themes and concepts. Watch it at home where you can talk freely as the show unrolls. Pause and discuss issues and ideas. Revel in new scientific and historical discoveries. Roll back the clock and learn from the masters. Tell your own stories while giving people of all ages a chance to talk—each teaching the other.
In short, don’t be mauled by modernity. Master it. Use electronic tools that could easily fractionate and alienate to unite and illuminate. Make the language of your home the language of ideas steeped in history, vivified by art, and supported by science. Create a common culture. Better yet, couple the wisdom of ages with the efficiency of modern methods to create an uncommon common culture.