The only time I was fortunate enough to teach a class at McGill, I asked my students during one particular lecture — all 97 of them — who had heard of Jean-Michel Basquiat. No one raised their hand.
To put it mildly, I was astonished. This was 2014. And here was a group of third-year students in their early 20s that, I assumed, all had functioning Wi-Fi connections and social media accounts, and were all more or less hip. Hipper than I was, I believed, because they were younger.
This was an incorrect assumption. I thought that just because they had the internet, they knew everything. But they knew next to nothing. Correction: they increasingly knew solely what the internet served.
It was only a decade ago, before Basquiat’s work enjoyed a rapid renaissance thanks to name checks in Jay-Z tracks, international museum tours, high-profile scandals, and colossal fugazis. Before algorithms generally set the agenda for cultural production. Before A.I. forgot more than we’ll ever know.
Specifically, here was a demographic of early 20-somethings who in a relatively short span of time went from possessing no knowledge of Jean-Michel Basquiat to possessing widespread knowledge of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Yet it wasn’t that long ago either, only a few decades, that Basquiat was alive and well-known amongst his own generation of 20-somethings.
Basquiat is a fairly niche example for cultural connaissance, to be sure. But instances of amnesia are elsewhere, too, making it something of a ubiquitous niche phenomenon.
Take as a second example Kate Bush. Another group of 20-somethings had recently never heard of Kate Bush — unless their weird parents listened to Lionheart — before they were suddenly bombarded with Kate Bush due to her music’s appearance in the Netflix series, Stranger Things.
These giant gaps and new bridges across recent culture remind me of Jerry Seinfeld’s 90s era joke about CD boxed sets: “Well, I don’t own anything by Steely Dan, but now I’d like to own everything by Steely Dan.”
Anecdotally, I have noticed that young people today — read, kids in their 20s — generally tend to have two types of knowledge: deep, or none at all. They know everything there is to know about their thing, and nothing about anything else.
It’s a fandom-twinged knowledge, clearly identifying tribes to their members — the Kate Bush tribe; the Basquiat tribe; the Steely Dan tribe. People are either in or out, on or off, a curious condition for a supposedly post-binary generation.
During a recent conversation with one of these [young people,] I asked whether [this person] had ever seen Cheers, among the most successful television shows in broadcast television history. To which [this person] replied, “I’ve seen clips of it.” [Hint: internet.]
Later in our conversation, I mentioned the film A Clockwork Orange. Again, I received a blank stare, which stunned me. How had [this person] lived 25 years in the postmodern world and never even heard of one of the most iconic texts of 20th century cinema? [Hint: internet.] It’s fitting that the latest social network is called “Threads,” because we’re losing them, fast.
The novelty of recent history displacing distant history might not seem like a big deal. But cumulatively, it translates into a new generation having a very limited understanding of the generation immediately preceding it. Not in modern history has there been such a lack of continuity between cultural vernaculars from one generation to the next.
Surely, this will cascade.
In her 2004 book, Dark Age Ahead, the cultural theorist Jane Jacobs warned of a void of knowledge emerging in the Western world. This, Jacobs argued, was due to the dissolution of family and community; higher education’s turn towards credentialization; the corporatization of the sciences; the corruption of national governments; and the disconnection with cultural history.
Poetically, Jacobs calls endemic forgetfulness the “fifth demonic Horseman” of the apocalypse. She writes: “During a Dark Age, the mass amnesia of survivors becomes permanent and profound. The previous way of life slides into an abyss of forgetfulness, almost as decisively as if it had never existed.”
The Dark Age we refer to as The Dark Age, following the fall of the Roman Empire, took place about 1000 years ago. Also about 1000 years ago, Eastern Orthodoxy emerged in what was called The Great Schism — the movement of Christianity further away from Rome. Is knowledge truly being forgotten? Or is it just venturing a little farther down the road?
The question as we move through this era of mass forgetfulness is, what knowledge to preserve? What made our culture great? Was it agriculture, textiles, masonry, geography, alchemy? Our most recent iteration of culture prized entertainment as its greatest resource.
This is not simply a gripe about contemporary culture being worse off than its precedents, like the old axiom in the 90s that the 60s was a more creatively rich decade. That too. Taylor Swift is no Emmylou Harris, and there isn’t even an historical equivalent of something like Nicki Minaj.
This is something else entirely. The “kids these days” aren’t into crap recent history either, as the antecedent era might have been fascinated with ironically inspired interests — kitsch, say, or Steely Dan.
Though, wherever there’s crisis, opportunity knocks. There is space for exposing young minds to artifacts like Cheers and Stanley Kubrick’s masterpieces, and probably many more relics that today’s youth have never heard of, but should have by now. There could be Recent History classes taught in universities that survey the quickly forgotten rather than just the faraway past.
Spanish philosopher George Santayana said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Who needs to relive the 90s again, again? Wouldn’t it be better if today’s youth had a casual awareness of Perry Farrell as much as Kurt Cobain? If they knew Tony Danza like they do Ross from Friends?
I would be pleased to teach such a class. Let’s call it Holiday in Another Country, since that’s what the past is. It seems further away than ever now.◼︎