Can we legitimately compare children who grew up in an era when television stations opened at 6.00pm and went to bed at 10.00pm with kids whose notion of the television is of a seamless stream of sensory perceptions? How much does it matter that the former invariably had only one channel to tune to, while the latter is, today, spoilt for choice across so many platforms? And how much difference does it make that the former had to wait a month for communication with a pen pal in Ghana to be brought in by the postman, while the latter is online, real-time with his “friends” in Australia?
I still don’t have answers to these questions, even though I spent much of Thursday last week thinking them through, as I heard speaker after speaker, at an event in honour of a friend’s 60th birthday regale the audience with his/her sense of how much poorer (than yesterday’s) today’s youth have turned out. True, a few of us did read more books growing up than was “legally permissible”. And some read books that would have left their parents/guardians (had they known) apoplectic. But it wasn’t the case that every child in that cohort read as much. There were those “lumpen” who were immune to the seduction of the written word — except there was testing at the end of it. But was that also not because for the imaginative, until three decades ago, books were then the only experiences that sated one’s hunger to know? Given the sensory assault on the imagination today, would this same coterie have been able to secure reading room?
I doubt that we could.
Still, there are other aspects to this conversation, aspects that the older cohort willfully sets aside, each time they get on this particular hobby horse. Much of the enthusiasm with which we consumed cultural/literary material of all kinds “in those days” made sense within the ideological context of the cold war. The debates about options for “developing” frontier economies were of course much fiercer conducted within the Manichaean continuum that had liberal, capitalist, democracy at one end, and collective, socialist, democracy, at the other.
If one of the consequences of the fall in 1989 of the Berlin Wall is, as Mike Davies, the American writer and activist, described it, that Marx “yielded the historical stage to Mohammed and the Holy Ghost”, then the resulting “de-secularisation” of public debate ought to have been expected. Especially, when our literati are the ones moaning about this de-secularisation. One more obvious upshot of this process, is today’s dominance of the church in all matters quotidian ─ a dominance that was underlined last week, on Nigerian-themed feeds, with competing exegeses spewing forth on social media putting forth on whether and how Christians should go about tithing.
Within this context, to ask, as my cohort now does, that a 14-year old, today, be as interested in Georgi Plekhanov’s “Monist View of History”, is as sensible as requiring a 14-year old in 1979 to de-bug a line of computer code. In all fairness, you only need to run the gauntlet from the Computer Village in Ikeja to the start-up hubs in Yaba to realise how creative this new generation could be.
They are, in their own way, as we were in our own time, victims in this sense of the same strictures that restrain the larger economy: epileptic electricity from the mains; poor broadband internet access; poor security; etc. These and many more such handicaps have held back the creativity of children born in this space since 1960. But in more ways than we care to acknowledge. I listened to folks born between 1940 and 1970 (our “Baby Boomers” and “Generation Xs”?) berate the quality of education enjoyed by children born since 1986 (“Millennials”?). I heard them deify their teachers for the selflessness that the latter brought to their vocation. And I wondered how much of that selflessness could have occurred today, when “take home pays” simply leave workers stranded at the bus-stop closest to their workplaces? And in order to get home, each one of us is increasingly forced to turn to all manner of “avocations at night” to complement earnings from our day jobs.
While one may readily charge those who came before with trying to create posterity in their own images, they do suffer from a deeper malady. Few, once borne heedlessly away by this train of thought pause to reflect on the scenery running by them. For in truth, I could hear my father’s generation speaking to mine in the plaints at the event on Thursday. Nowhere was this resonance louder than when “we” spoke to the emptiness of the music that our young one’s listen to. You’d imagine from hearing us complain, that our music was that much deeper.
But even that is a barely concealed lie. At the post jaw-jaw, when my “comrades” finally let their hairs down, they listened soberly to Ebenezer Obey’s “deep thoughts” rendered in the “Commander’s” inimitable style. But go back a bit. No. May be a little more. And you see how indebted the Chief Commander was to many who had gone before him — Kayode Fasola, and Aesop, for instance. While I imagine that those who grew up listening to the Chief Commander’s predecessors would have dismissed his music as lacking originality, not many can today take away from his genius.
Is it then the case that succeeding generations must find their answers to the peculiar challenges that they confront? And that rarely are these responses capable of being anticipated by their elders?