May 23, 2018

Between Us – “Fine, and You?” (Or maybe not so much)

Trish Bennett is an award-winning journalist and the former assistant editor of Main Street News.  She holds a master of science degree in journalism and was adjunct professor of media history at Quinnipiac University before relocating Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Her latest work appears in the up-coming volume of “This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women” slated for publication in association with National Public Radio this Fall.  She can be reached at pwbennett@verizon.net

Fine, and You?” (Or maybe not so much)
 
It is the absence of the “fine” in our kids’ lives—deliberation and discernment skills—that worries me:
 
To the ever-expanding pile of words denuded of practically all meaning, I’d like to add “fine.”
 
Witness the range of synonyms offered, for example, by my Macbook onboard thesaurus: “very well,” “well,” “all right,” “okay”: which is a little like saying “thriving,” “healthy,” “so-so,” and “breathing, but little else” all mean the same thing.
 
Show me a med student who maintains that “thriving,” “healthy,” “so-so,” and “breathing but that’s all,” are interchangeable descriptions of a patient’s state, and I’ll show you next week’s road crew member.
 
What got me ruminating on “fine’s” decline is several recent examples that demonstrate how very absent from our children’s experiences are the word’s other uses.  That is, “fine” as in “subtle”; “delicate”; “refined.”
 
Now before I am accused of advocating that kids be inculcated with the rituals of high tea at four o’clock, and the care and feeding of Granny’s bone china, allow me to explain.  Or perhaps paint you some word pictures.
 
I volunteer in an inner-city Philadelphia school built in the 1920’s.  The library, where I help teach first, third and fourth graders is a relatively bright oasis of clean, sturdy tables and raspberry-hued upholstered chairs.  Outside the library, strong-armed, alarmed doors keep intruders out of the sunless halls where rusty pipes often leak into containers meant for recycled paper.
 
To many of my kids, the library can mean “fine” in the sense of an alternative: one of only a few places regularly available to them where nursery rhymes, biographies, and Harry Potter can offer beauty or delicacy in contrast to the gritty realities posed by poverty and absent parents.
 
Since school began, though, my volunteer friends and I have been alternately surprised, bemused and discouraged by our students’ choice of books.
 
Call it “elitist” if you will, but we can sigh when there are tug-of-wars over the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Captain Underpants” series while grade- and ability-friendly volumes featuring Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein and Anne Frank seldom get a glance.
 
Is this “fine” in the sense of just okay (“hey, at least they’re reading”)?  Perhaps.  Is a steady diet of only pop culture and familiarity helping these kids to develop finer qualities like critical thinking and subtle reasoning?  I think not.
 
And lest you think that disadvantaged kids are the only ones who lack for examples of higher aspirations, come west about nine miles to the quite advantaged Main Line where the children of privilege, like their 8- to 18-year-old counterparts country-wide spend—according to a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation—more than seven and a half hours a day in front of a smart phone, computer, TV or other electronic device.
 
For the moment, leave aside concerns of rampant childhood obesity and the 47 percent of “heavy” media users who, according to the study, had mostly C grades or lower.
 
Instead consider the example of Baby Trey, who, the New York Times related, was parked by his well-meaning mother in front of Baby Einstein videos and “Dora the Explorer.”
 
“By the time he was 4, he had all these math and science DVDs…and he learned to read and do math early,” said Trey’s mother, Kim Calinan.  But now that Trey is 9, Calinan observes, video games have displaced after-school activities, and her son shows little interest in any social interaction or independent exploration—such as reading—that might cut into his gaming time.
 
“[Heavy media use has] changed young people’s assumptions about how to get an answer to a question,” says Donald F. Roberts, a Stamford communications professor emeritus who is one of the authors of the Kaiser Foundation study.  “People can put out a problem…and information pours in from all kinds of sources.”
 
And as a former communications professor myself, I can attest that even college age students, while they may be whizzes at harvesting factoids, are becoming less and less adapt at culling and discriminating between the finer points in that information avalanche.
 
To some degree my privileged former students are no further along in their ability to engage in refined, subtle thought than my challenged present charges.
 
So what we have here may be “fine,” in the sense of “okay” for many: Democracy is not yet threatened by many kids’ hampered ability to reason.
 
But it is the absence of the “fine” in our kids’ lives, represented by deliberation and discernment skills, that worries me: the impetus to be curious beyond the familiar; to be enlightened beyond the obvious; to consider rather than simply emote; to be educated rather than simply amused.
 
And absent those fine points of the human experience, we and our children are not fine at all.

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