Those who do not learn from history

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The other week I was standing in front of a classroom full of American college students, talking about the Industrial Revolution and the cotton ships that plied their trade from New Orleans to Liverpool back in the second half of the 19thcentury. I thought it might catch their interest to mention Muhammad Ali’s great grandfather Abe Grady made his way from County Clare to the United States on just such a boat around the 1860s. I thought wrong. I could tell from the blank looks on their faces the reference went straight over their heads.

Like any good teacher, I repeated the information, thinking it was merely the way I phrased the yarn that caused the problem in translation the first time. No, it wasn’t. The problem was they had no idea who Muhammad Ali was. I know this because I asked them straight out what they knew about him. A lot of blank faces. No hands in the air. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, one student piped up. “Isn’t he the guy that bit the other guy on the ear in a boxing fight?” I stopped it there before somebody else wondered whether Ali was the boxer in “The Hangover” movie.

I am now in my ninth year working as a part-time professor in two local colleges. This is not a column about how dumb the students are because they aren’t. Yes, of course, some of them are smarter than others. Just like when I was in university at UCC and DCU two decades back. No, this is about the generation gap. The cliché used to be that you know you are getting old when the policemen start to look too young and fresh-faced for you. I’ve discovered that I know I’m getting old when my frames of reference mean nothing to the students sitting in front of me.

During a recent lesson about Islam, I brought up September 11th, 2001 and the fall-out from that terrible day. Most of these students are from the New York area. They lived through it. When I was disappointed by the lack of response, one student brought me to order. “I was seven years old when that happened,” she said. “I don’t remember anything about it except we got out of school early I think.” That was me put in my box. When I started teaching the students were just over ten years younger than I am. Now, they are young enough that they could be my own sons and daughters.

This leads inevitably to a yawning and often embarrassing generation gap. They have no real understanding of the world before computers, smart phones and the internet. During a discussion about technology one day, I mentioned how back in Cork in the early 1980s we used to tape music by pressing a tape recorder against the speakers of the radio during shows we knew would play the artists we liked. As I explained the process, they sat there bemused. I might as well have brought in a caveman to tell them how he happened upon a way to make fire. That was how far removed the story was from their experience.

They have grown up in a different world. They don’t read newspapers. Indeed, the idea of paying for news when it is available for free online is absolutely alien to them. They don’t pay for music or anything else they can download illegally for free. Loud was the guffawing the time I mentioned buying an iTunes card in order to purchase an album. “I’ve always wondered who bought those,” said one student.  It’s probably a good thing I teach some of them history because that’s exactly where they believe I come from.
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