April 9, 2014

NYT columnist Frank Bruni, 49, is teaching a college class and the students don't get his allusions.

They didn't know the Jane Fonda movies "They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?" and "Barbarella." They hadn't heard of Vanessa Redgrave or Greta Garbo.

Or at least they looked like they didn't. Should we trust Bruni's interpretation of the blank expression on their face? Did it mean "I don't know what you are referring to?" or "Boring!"

The school is Princeton, Bruni reveals in paragraph 4, which means, of course, the students aren't dumb. They're just fractured, lacking shared experience, which Bruno concedes might be good:
No single, potentially alienating cultural dogma holds sway. 
Oh? Young people may not know the grand old actresses that swan about forever in the mind of Frank Bruni....



... but I think the young people are actually quite aware of the sway of a single, potentially alienating cultural dogma.

Cue inevitable discussion of Brendan Eich and Bill Maher's talk of the "Gay Mafia."

Oh, it's only potentially alienating. It's not as though there's a required course on Great Actresses of the Silver Screen. That might be alienating. And it's okay — per Bruno — as long as it's not alienating. Hmm. But isn't the holding of sway manifested by a lack of alienation?
Alienation, a sociological concept developed by several classical and contemporary theorists, is "a condition in social relationships reflected by a low degree of integration or common values and a high degree of distance or isolation between individuals, or between an individual and a group of people in a community or work environment.".... Marx believed that alienation is a systematic result of capitalism....
I want to be alone....

ADDED: On rereading, I'm pulling apart Bruni's sentence "No single, potentially alienating cultural dogma holds sway." Take out the words "potentially alienating" for a minute, and you have "No single cultural dogma holds sway." We can question the truth of that statement (as I did, bringing up Brendan Eich), but it's comprehensible: If we are fractured, then there's no single cultural dogma that can hold sway.

Now, add "potentially alienating." If there were one dogma binding us all, it might be alienating. I take Bruni to be saying that alienation is bad and that our fractured culture is good because it safeguards us from alienation. It (paradoxically) holds us together. Lots of diversity and decentralization makes us culturally strong. That's perfectly platitudinous.

57 comments:

David said...

Yesterday in my class I did my best Charlton Heston "soylant green is people." My students, class of 17, so born in 1995, had no idea.

Paco Wové said...

Alienation: bad.
Balkanization: good.

Ann Althouse said...

I think Bruni is mostly sad that young people don't get his references.

Deirdre Mundy said...

I've never seen a Jane Fonda movie. Is Barbarella really up there with Casablanca, Bringing up Baby, Roman Holiday, The Maltese Falcon, etc?

When I hang with the film buffs, Jane Fonda does not fall into the "I can't believe you never watched her!"

I'm in my 30s. Jane Fonda is some lady in workout videos. I'd no more seek her out than I would Richard Simmons.

And I suspect it's even worse for the younger kids.

Is she actually any good? Or did she just get jobs b/c she was Henry Fonda's kid?

Goldie Hawn seems to have done a better job sticking around.

rhhardin said...

I managed college without film allusions.

He's evidently a film freak.

Bob Ellison said...

...and get off my lawn!

Bruni notes that 'In the mid-1970s, when the sitcom “All in the Family” was America’s top-rated television series, more than 50 million people would tune in to a given episode. That was in a country of about 215 million.'

Really makes me wonder. 25% of all of all Americans alive, babies, oldsters, people with no TVs, cops on the job, etc., were watching that show weekly, at exactly the same time on prime-time?

I doubt it.

Skeptical Voter said...

Ms. Althouse you are in danger of sounding like a Frank Bruni lecture. Another way to say it is that "inside baseball" talk on any topic is boring as hell to anybody who doesn't much care for baseball--or for films--or whatever.

Now if you are a lecturer at a temple of learning such as Princeton (a little bit of snark there for the benefit of anybody who has ever read part of Michelle Obama's senior thesis) you may have some obligation to pander to the class and make your course actually interesting.

Naturally that involves elimination of basic Western Civilization studies and substituting queer studies or a riveting seminar on transgender practices among Lapp reindeer herders or some such. Bruni is talking about films and he's not keeping up with the Lapps as it were.

Kelly said...

If he threw in references about the most popular viners he'd be on to something. That's the shared culture of young people right there. Some of the viners have millions of followers for their 6 second clip. This might partly explain the earlier post about shortened attention spans.

Rumpletweezer said...

There was a security feature on a website that asked the user to name what was in the picture. It was supposed to be proof that the user was over 18. The picture was of a VCR tape. It was probably made up, but it was funny, and would probably work as a security device.

My daughter, not very many years ago, had a workbook that had a picture of a 45rpm record in the margin. I realized she didn't have any idea what it was.

Is there, in today's world, anything that everybody knows?

EDH said...

Professor: "Oh, the humanity! What effect will this have on professors bedding comely co-eds?"

Co-ed: What's a co-ed?

sdharms said...

Shared experience binds people together. A Single Culture is GOOD.
Platitudinous? Too Kind. It is Barbara Streisand.

traditionalguy said...

Cue Three Penney Opera. The culture has values, it's just that no one knows which ones are left today.

Putin knows. And Mao Tse-tung simplified an answer...our values become whatever comes from the barrel of a gun.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Why does it make him feel old that his students don't get his allusions. He is 49, so the movies he refers to came out when he was 3 or 4. They were before his time, and the other actresses even more so.

Ann Althouse said...

"Shared experience binds people together. A Single Culture is GOOD. Platitudinous? Too Kind. It is Barbara Streisand."

But the thing I called platitudinous was the opposite of what you are saying!

LarsPorsena said...

Ann Althouse said...
I think Bruni is mostly sad that young people don't get his references.

4/9/14, 10:40 AM
_______________________________

I think it's sad that Bruni thinks that they should.

Rocketeer said...

I read this post carefully, but find myself distracted by the notion that since it's Princeton, you assume the students aren't dumb. Was that just a hypothetical stipulation, for purposes of the further discussion?

Ann Althouse said...

"Professor: "Oh, the humanity! What effect will this have on professors bedding comely co-eds?"Co-ed: What's a co-ed?"

"Bedding" and "comely" are also incomprehensible… I hope!

"Oh, the humanity"… presumes knowledge of the Hindenburg disaster.

It's a wonder we can even speak at all.

Ann Althouse said...

"Yesterday in my class I did my best Charlton Heston "soylant green is people." My students, class of 17, so born in 1995, had no idea."

And you yourself, who value the reference, don't even spell it correctly.

Everything is always slipping away… out of Charlton Heston's cold, dead hands.

And it's a good thing too.

David said...

Cultural references are important. Spelling? Ptah.

Sigivald said...

Did it mean "I don't know what you are referring to?" or "Boring!"

Both?

Why would he think that 19 or 20 year old students would know the movies of his youth?

Tank said...

Deirdre Mundy said...

I've never seen a Jane Fonda movie. Is Barbarella really up there with Casablanca, Bringing up Baby, Roman Holiday, The Maltese Falcon, etc?


OK, that was funny.

I think maybe you'd want to look at Klute or Coming Home.

augustus said...

There are at least two elements of the current culture which are poisonous universal cultural dogmas: snark and crassness.

jr565 said...

Why should someone born in the last 20 years get "They don't shoot horses do they?" references.

Robert Cook said...

Spelling is important.

jr565 said...

augustus wrote:
There are at least two elements of the current culture which are poisonous universal cultural dogmas: snark and crassness.

It started with Marlon Brando in the Wild Ones saying "What do you got?" when asked what he was rebelling against, and it got snarkier from there.
Rebels are often just really obnoxious people.

Lucien said...

Any class on "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" should come with a Trigger warning -- in case Roy Rogers is auditing.

jr565 said...

I mentioned the Wild One, but I wouldn't expect most kids to get it. In fact it was atcually a reference from before my time. I only know it because I was a film buff for a long time and wanted to know the history of cinema.
Now I don't really give a crap. But, only film nerds are going to get references from obscure movies from 50 years ago.
A lot of kids barely know who the Beatles are, theyr'e going to get Barbarella?
Maybe Duran Duran fans might know Barbarella, but thats it.

Eric said...

They are learning very important lessons about Frank Bruni and, by implication, the competence and credibility of those who write opinions for our media institutions.

Ipso Fatso said...

Gotta admit, I had to look up what a "viner" was, but then again I'm 57 and am happy just to get this intraweb thing on my computer box thingy. Peace.

Æthelflæd said...

" "Oh, the humanity"… presumes knowledge of the Hindenburg disaster."

Or WKRP in Cincinnati's Thanksgiving episode.

gregq said...

So Bruni is so pathetic that he thinks "Barbarella" ranks with Gretta Garbo?

Æthelflæd said...

The best thing Jane Fonda ever did was Cat Ballou.

SJ said...

@Ann,

I think the phrase "Oh, the humanity" has worked its way into the common culture far enough that people need not immediately recognize it as being a reference to The Hindenburg.

Which I didn't, until now.

Robert Cook said...

"Rebels are often just really obnoxious people."

If they weren't, they wouldn't be rebels.

Robert Cook said...

I think Frank Bruni is making a humorously self-deprecating point that technology is increasingly and swiftly fracturing the commonality of culture that once did tenuously bind generations and populations of people to at least a general understanding of what the other was talking about. (It seems today the only cultural entities that seem to be known to nearly all generations in America are super-heroes...which seems somehow...not right.)

From Inwood said...

In this regard, I would recommend The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy

Like Prof A's earlier posts on looking old, one's references do date one.

Hey, maybe this is why those who send around quotes to me with quotes made by people born, say, after WW II, attribute the quotes to Tom Jefferson :-)

CatherineM said...

I bet that's true. I mentioned Grace Kelly/Princess Grace a few years back and no one under 35 knew who she was.

Most of the people under 40 I work with will not watch a movie over 20 years old never mind black and white.

They are missing out. Their loss.

Mr. D said...

My alma mater, Beloit College, has been marketing itself for years by using these sorts of cultural reference gaps in its "Mindset List."

Good thing that Bruni is sufficiently middlebrow that he avoided any references to Shields and Yarnell or Kreskin.

From Inwood said...

Ipso

Nothing could be finer
Then to work with that old viner
in the Morning....

Oclarki said...

Don't oldsters have as much of an obligation to understand current pop culture if they are interacting with the youth?

Mary Beth said...

Is there, in today's world, anything that everybody knows?

Mickey Mouse.

I agree with Æthelflæd that Cat Ballou was best but I'll note that she's not the reason it's good.

Joe said...

I wonder if he teaching is as bad as his writing. I'd guess it's worse.

Richard Dolan said...

"If there were one dogma binding us all, it might be alienating. I take Bruni to be saying that alienation is bad and that our fractured culture is good because it safeguards us from alienation. It (paradoxically) holds us together. Lots of diversity and decentralization makes us culturally strong. That's perfectly platitudinous."

In context, it is also perfectly ridiculous and over-thought. The simplest explanation (let's not mention Ockham, since the kids won't recognize his name either) is that the Princeton students didn't know what Bruni was talking about. It's all well and good to have students from lots of different backgrounds with many varied experiences and interests, blah, blah, blah. But the (forgivable) ignorance on display in Bruni's class had nothing to do with alienation, cultural dogma, or any such high-falutin stuff. Those kids had hust never heard of some not-so-great movies of 30+ years ago that had nevertheless achieved a certain icnonic status with a slightly older set (to wit, Bruni's). No real reason why they should have been familiar with that stuff either. But it is also true that their lack of knowledge explains why they are the students, and he is the teacher.

Here is my reference point for this: My oldest daughter is currently in her first year at a lovely liberal arts college, and for her freshman seminar signed up for a course about Bach and Handel. There were only 5 students in the class, two of whom (besides her) were musicians. When the professor asked whether anyone had ever been to an opera or could even name an opera, only one hand went up. Same with a composer of operas. (One kid thought that Les Mis qualified.) In part, her familiarity comes from growing up in NYC, where the Met performs from Sept to May, and there are endless opportunities to sample every art form ever invented. But still.

The kids in her class all come from the same backgrounds as Princeton students, yet the level of ignorance was quite remarkable. There may be many explanations for such astonishing (to me, anyway) lack of familiarity with our shared musical history, but talk about cultural dogma, alienation and such is most unlikely to shed light on the issue.

William Chadwick said...

I don't think Bruni is misinterpreting the blank looks. It isn't just film: see the book CULTURAL ILLITERACY by E. D. Hirsch (not to mention this

http://www.amazon.com/The-Dumbest-Generation-Stupefies-Jeopardizes/dp/1585426393--although I guess I did mention it).

I don't think it's just another cranky old guy complaining about "the kids today." One of the things I remember most fondly about being a Baby Boomer is the 1960s and 1970s is that we had a sense of what had gone before us. We not only know who W. C. Fields, Bogart, and the Marx Brothers were, but they were important to at least many of us. Today if I mention anything or anyone that happened or lived before the Dumbest Generation, I get the same blank stares Bruni got.

Titus said...

Bruni is an out homosexual. Maybe if he really vamps it up in class it will get the kids excited to learn about all the old Hollywood hags.

Why is he teaching a class by the way?

I am in Princeton once a month for work and am not impressed. For a Ivy town they have their fare share of boarded up businesses-shame on them.

tits.

mccullough said...

Maybe all their dads served in Vietnam and so sheltered the students from Hanoi Jane.

Sam L. said...

What kind of fool is Frank, to think kids these days would have seen many 30-year-old movies? And Jane, she's O-L-D OLD! Beyond their ken!

That movie came out in '69, lessee here, 45 years ago, roughly 25 years before they were born. Why did he think they would know that? Has he not seen that annual list of "Things your 18-year-old new college freshman has never known/experienced"?

Well, he's a NYTer. He has the received knowledge and cannot comprehend those who haven't.

Unknown said...

What's sad is that Frank Bruni is teaching a call at a so called elite university.

Big Mike said...

I think Bruni is mostly sad that young people don't get his references.

No, I think he's mostly sad that he's gotten so old so soon. He could always tell them that Vanessa Redgrave played the old woman in "Letter to Juliet" opposite Amanda Seyfried. At that point they'll have to tell him who Amanda Seyfried is and he'll really feel out of it.

Back in the day the sexy scenes ("She broke the Orgasmatron!") and the costumes in "Barbarella" were very titilating to high school and college-age males (says the guy who was in college in 1968, when the movie was originally released). But these days you can see lots more skin on TV in an HBO presentation like "Game of Thrones" or "Sex in the City."

I don't know how much my appreciation of Jane Fonda's acting in her early days was due to the amount of skin showed in "Barbarella" and "Klute," not to mention her once-gorgious face. In my opinion she didn't do a good job playing the daughter in "On Golden Pond" opposite her real father, Henry, but then I'm a Vietnam-era vet so ...

And no, Frank, your kids don't know who Henry Fonda was, either, considering that he died probably about the time they were born.

Alex said...

"Leave you, madam?
With pure joy. Departure's a simple act. You put the
left foot down, and then the right.
Mother! Hush, dear. Mother's fighting."

gregq said...

Deirdre Mundy said...

I've never seen a Jane Fonda movie. Is Barbarella really up there with Casablanca, Bringing up Baby, Roman Holiday, The Maltese Falcon, etc?

No. It's T&A "sexploitation", and not very good "sexploitation" at that.

jaed said...

25% of all of all Americans alive, babies, oldsters, people with no TVs, cops on the job, etc., were watching that show weekly, at exactly the same time on prime-time?

Three networks. Three things to watch on TV at that hour. Three choices of show.

No cable, no Internet, no DVDs, no VCRs. If you wanted to watch any sort of entertainment at home, broadcast TV was it. If you wanted to watch TV during prime time, the three networks were it.

(You could also listen to records, read books, or entertain yourself in some way. But no smartphones, no iPods, no Walkman, no boomboxes. No Kindle, no free downloadable books, no web essays.)

25% doesn't surprise me at all. Few households didn't have a TV, and few people with a TV weren't watching something on it at that hour.

Æthelflæd said...

Mary Beth said...

"I agree with Æthelflæd that Cat Ballou was best but I'll note that she's not the reason it's good."

Agreed. It was the horse.

rcocean said...

If the students don't know Popular music, TV or Movies who cares? If they don't know political history and the basis of Western Civilization, then I'd be more concerned.

AJ Lynch said...

Lee Marvin playing a drunk cowboy on a drunk horse in Cat Ballou was a classic movie scene.

I used to use that movie poster picture as my screen saver.

HoTouPragmatosKurios said...

"Hey Nineteen, that's 'Retha Franklin!"
She don't remember the Queen of Soul.
It's hard times befallen us sole survivors.
She thinks I'm crazy, but I'm just growing old.
"Hey Nineteen, no we can't dance together.
No we can't talk at all...

HoTouPragmatosKurios said...

"Hey Nineteen, that's 'Retha Franklin!"
She don't remember the Queen of Soul.
It's hard times befallen us sole survivors.
She thinks I'm crazy, but I'm just growing old.
"Hey Nineteen, no, we can't dance together.
No, we can't talk at all..."