The Tragic Failure of the “Greatest Generation”

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The crowd at Woodstock fills a natural amphith...

The so-called “Greatest Generation” survived the Great Depression and helped to win World War II. The level of sacrifice that generation endured was most likely among the highest levels in American history. Courage, perseverance, thrift, integrity–the Greatest Generation exemplified all these virtues. But many from that generation failed in their most fundamental duty: the rearing of children with virtues and high moral standards.

This was not all the generation’s fault. May fathers (and some mothers) had been killed or had died of disease during the war. Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome had not been identified as a treatable condition, although it was recognized as “battle fatigue” or “shell shock.” Soldiers returning from the European and Pacific theaters had seen the worst of what humanity could do, and some POWs had experienced the worst. Not every soldier who came home was going to be the same loving husband and father he was before the war. Even soldiers who did not suffer from PTSD had changed a great deal during their time overseas, as did their wives. The divorce rate skyrocketed to the highest levels ever seen in the United States shortly after World War II. Even today, with a high divorce rate, the United States has not matched the level of the late 1940s.

Parents not directly affected by the war were at least intimately aware of the Great Depression. Many parents who had suffered so much did not desire their children to have the same negative experiences. This was a laudable goal. However, as is often the case, the pendulum swung too far to the other extreme. Some social scientists said that children should not be disciplined at all, and Dr. Benjamin Spock was actually a conservative among social scientists for suggesting moderate discipline. The economy boomed, and parents, eager to give children the things they missed in their own childhood, showered their children with gifts on Christmas and on birthdays. Although many parents did hold their children accountable for their actions, others who bought into the social science framework reared children as if they existed in Rousseau’s state of nature, with no discipline. This lack of discipline, combined with the number of homes that were either single-parent or with a stepfather, sometimes produced spoiled children. Certainly some good children came out of single-parent homes, and some stepfathers were both loving and demanding of good behavior from their children. Children were also allowed to socialize more with other children rather than with adults, as had been the earlier practice–and with the post-World War II baby boom there were plenty of young people to socialize.. Moral relativism was growing among high school students, a trend noticed by social scientists around 1960. In 1964, the first boomer children entered colleges and universities–and the world changed forever.

Universities became occupied camps as students made multiple demands on the administration. Marxist agitators, the result of the Port Huron Meeting in 1962, in which Marxists took over the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) easily took advantage of spoiled and over-privileged children–“a bunch of spoiled brats,” as philosopher John Searle labeled them. Contemporary movements of multiculturalism, radical feminism, womanism, Neo-Marxist literary criticism, a bias against Western Culture, “special studies” programs–all came to fruition among the radical products of failed parenting among the baby boomers. It is true that many boomers resisted the radicals or were indifferent to them. But there were enough to overthrow the traditional Judeo-Christian European ethic that had guided the United States from the Second Great Awakening in the 1790s until the real 1960s began in 1964. Spoiled rich children used their parents’ money to go to Height-Asbury or to the 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Festival with its ramped drug use and overdoses and sex out in the open. These were not the actions of well-disciplined children.

In the Old Testament, God held the good judge Eli responsible for his sons having sex with prostitutes while supposedly worshiping Yahweh. As a result, his sons died in battle, and Eli, in shock that the Ark of the Covenant had been taken by the Philistines, fell over in his chair, broke his neck, and died. Now society is reaping far worse results than  the death of a beloved judge–the entire fabric of society in the United States is breaking apart as the world is turned upside down by the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the boomers.

I was recently talking with a member of the Greatest Generation at church–a World War II veteran. His children turned out well–but he told me the many of the Greatest Generation did not rear their children in the right way. There are no guarantees in parenting, and some children of non-disciplining parents may have turned out great, and some from parents who provided moderate discipline may have turned out badly. But in general, a large enough group of spoiled brats to begin America’s slow suicide entered the colleges and universities. Some are “tenured radicals.” Others have retired. The damage has been done, and it may be irrevocable–God only knows.

Fewer Video Games, Less Organized Sports, More Spontaneous Play

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Rural scene.

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As a child growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I often played outside. A limestone rock became a space ship, or an outcropping of rocks a mysterious planet. Sometimes some neighbors would come over and we’d play kickball, and I would go to their house and play football in their large front yard. Sure, there were the usual fights and shouts of “You cheated!” But overall, it was a wonderful experience.

Playing outside did not mean there was no time for television. I watched the Big Show on Channel 5 in Nashville at 4 p.m. many afternoons, especially when the old Frankenstein and Dracula movies were playing. And I’d watch Red Skelton with Granddaddy or To Tell the Truth with Garry Moore hosting. The world of my childhood was a world of wonder. But television was limited, and I was required to go outside–and I wanted to play outside, ride my bike, swing under the maple tree, walk through the field to a thicket of trees, hide in dark spaces where trees and bushes had filled in, forming leafy roofs.

Another part of that world of wonder was reading. I remember ninth grade—my parents would go to Fred’s on the square in Murfreesboro every Wednesday night. There was a shelf of paperback classics for a quarter each—Journey to the Center of the Earth, The First Men in the Moon, Treasure Island, The Prisoner of Zenda, King Solomon’s Mines. These adventures riveted me into  other lands and other times, both past and future. I wonder if many children today know the joy of getting lost in a book.

I am glad I am not a child today, in this world of video games and structured recreation. Video games shorten a child’s attention span and keep the child away from books. The games are in addition to constant television. And when a child plays outside, it is structured play—soccer moms and soccer dads take soccer kids to practice, play, and the child has little time for spontaneous play. It is not organized sports for children that is the problem—it is that taking away all time for spontaneous play stifles their creativity. By the time I see these children in college, they have great hand-eye coordination but many of them lack basic reading and writing skills. Very few students go outside to the picnic tables under shade trees even when the weather is beautiful. They are often holed up in their dorms or in bars. I’m sure that some college students did have a childhood with spontaneous play and adventures with reading. I’m afraid that they are not the majority. Will they realize what they have missed? Or will the new parenting become a cycle, with kids growing less imaginative and more ignorant every generation. If I could do my small part to recreate a sense of wonder in even one student in my class, teaching would be worth the effort. But I hope and pray that parents and school systems will understand the need for open play, for reading, for a sense of adventure and exploration that goes beyond a computer monitor or big screen television or soccer field.