Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

Time for a Boomer Education Comeback?

Mister Boomer recently heard an interview with an author who wrote about the differences between the Chinese education system and that of the U.S. in an effort to discover why our country continually lags behind in elementary education surveys.

The author said that in China, children must obey their parents as the ultimate authority figures, and when they went to school, the teachers were the ultimate authority. Not even parents are allowed to question teachers’ methods or course study. While this cultural imperative imparts a strict discipline that is evidently conducive to prepping students for higher education, it sounds far more rigid that anything we have had in this country … or does it? Mister Boomer was struck by the similarities to our Boomer-era education.

Granted, things may never have been as disciplined as required in a Chinese classroom, but the way we rose through the school ranks is far different than what transpires today. First off, we were also taught to respect and listen to our parents, which, for the most part, we did. When we went to school, the teachers were thought of as an extension of the parents. That meant what the teacher said, went. If you came home and said, “The teacher hit me,” a parent might have responded with, “Good, what did you do to make her hit you?” Our parents would take the side of the teacher every time.

Yes, there was that corporal punishment aspect of classroom discipline that causes litigation today. Mister Boomer stayed along the straight and narrow, but he saw classroom beat-downs that would horrify today’s supermarket tabloids. It is doubtful that many people would want to return to that aspect of “education,” but it is a part of our shared history. Despite the threat of bodily harm, kids accepted teachers as authority figures.

This system sometimes broke down when there was a substitute teacher. Kids enjoyed giving her (teachers were mostly female) a hard time on occasion, though it was usually light-hearted mischievousness. Take, for example, one day Mister Boomer remembers: He was probably in fourth grade when the school principal came into his class and introduced a woman who was to be the sub for a few days. Immediately after the principal left, the substitute passed around a pad of paper and asked the kids to write their names so she could take attendance and get to associate the names with faces.

Almost immediately, muffled snickering could be heard as the list passed down one row and up the next. When it reached Mister B, he could see what the snickering was about. Enterprising youth as they were, most wrote their own names, but also added another fictitious one to the list. Naturally, at the top of the list a pre-teen boy had written above his own name,“Jack MeHoff.” Almost every student had joined in the fun, adding “Chuck Wagon,” “Luke Warm,” “Willie Makit,” and, in a rare bit of solidarity, a girl penned “Helen Bach” after her name. Mister B, feeling the peer pressure, added “Pete Moss.”

The payoff would come when the teacher called each name. Was she in on the joke or just clueless? Sure enough, she started at the top of the list, much to the delight of the class: “Jack … Mee-Huff, is that how you pronounce it? … Jack, where are you,” she continued as the class burst into laughter. She caught on pretty quickly after that and navigated the name land mines to conduct a regular class. There were no further incidents for the duration of her substitute days.

Is it time to return to a level of classroom respect that we experienced as boomers? Who can say, especially since so much has changed. Kids today are far more advanced in their course studies than we were, not to mention the influence of technology. Yet the U.S. lags down the list for education quality on the world stage.

What do you think, boomers? Are there aspects of our own Age of Innocence that can be applied today, or has that ship sailed into the annals of history?

posted by Mister B in Education and have Comment (1)

Boomers Did Not Question School Starting Times

Kids are back in school just about everywhere this week, prompting fresh controversy in the news about starting times. School start times vary from state to state and in some cases are local school district decisions. Every few years, a new report surfaces that says middle and high school start times are too early. This latest round of news is courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, which stated that the average national start time is 8 a.m. According to the American Academy of Pediatricians, the National Sleep Foundation and others, the recommended start time for adolescents would be 8:30 a.m. or later.

Though Mister Boomer could uncover no corroborating evidence, it seems logical to him that school start times were based on when parents of a particular region felt they could get their children to school. Consequently, the average start time has not changed much since the 1930s.

Contrary to the sitcoms of the boomer era, the majority of fathers in the country worked in manufacturing jobs in the 1950s and ’60s. Work start times were 7 a.m. or earlier, so dads would often be gone before the children got out of bed. Nonetheless, it was considered a woman’s job to get the kids off to school. Since it was also the woman’s job to get her husband a breakfast before he went off to work, presumably she would have time when her husband walked out the door to wake the kids, prepare their breakfast and see them off to school between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m. At least this train of thought fits Mister Boomer’s experience, and every family of the kids he knew at the time.

Of course, by the very early sixties, his mother revolted and refused to get up to cook Mister B’s father a breakfast. Soon after, she announced she wasn’t getting up to see her kids off to school, either. No matter to Mister Boomer and his siblings, as they ate a bowl of cereal (and later, Carnation Instant Breakfast and Pop Tarts) and learned to pack their own lunches before walking two miles in a snowstorm to get to school before the 8 a.m. start time. But we digress.

Several scientific experts are stating that kids need at least 8 hours of sleep, and later start times in some counties is supporting evidence that students are more alert, ready to learn, and are more productive. Coaches are saying they notice the later start times are contributing to better performance in sports as well.

Then again, there is a report that says two out of every three teens get less than the recommended eight hours of sleep. Of course, the question immediately arises that, if kids need eight hours of sleep, why aren’t they going to bed earlier? Mister Boomer recalls an expanding bedtime schedule as he grew; in his younger years, it was 9 p.m. but by the time he was a teen, he often stayed up to 10:30 or 11 p.m. Since his alarm went off at 7 a.m., presumably he and his siblings got the requisite eight hours. That was then. Nowadays, kids have so many more distractions than boomers did, first among them the smart phone. There is one report that says on average kids spend the first hour when they go to bed on their phones, texting, watching videos and updating social media posts.

In boomer days, if a peep was heard from the bedrooms down the hall, parents might shout out, “shut up and go to sleep!” It seems these days that parents do not command that level of authority. Mister Boomer works with one Gen-Xer who was so frustrated by his early-teen kids’ nightly behavior that he impounded their cell phones at bedtime.

Oh, that George Jetson, dropping his kids off to school in the morning on his way to work. It seems in boomer times we could not envision a time when school would start later in the morning.

Science, however, is saying it’s not only the eight hours that are required, but the disruption of the circadian rhythm at the earlier hour that is coming into play. Certainly many a boomer recalls dozing off in an early class. And many boomers — including Mister B — can attest to napping in a 7:30 a.m. college course. In Mister Boomer’s case, it was a Humanities course. No sooner did the professor shut the lights and turn on the slide projector than he was fighting to keep his eyes open.

From Mister Boomer’s perspective on our shared boomer upbringing, there were things that just were, and that was that. School start time was never a question, it just was the time you had to be there. For the most part, he does not recall a lot of kids dozing off in class early on, either. At that time, teachers would hardly have stood for it, and might give a kid a swift whack with a ruler if a kid was discovered dozing.

Mister B is no expert on the subject, and doesn’t play one in his blog. He is just pointing out another of the growing list of differences between the generations of when boomers yawned at the dawn’s early light and today’s generation that wakes up to a blinking screen.

What time did your school start, boomers? Did you ever fall asleep in an early class?

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Boomers Learned About the Birds and the Bees

Debates about sex education were headline news in the boomer era, but our generation was far from the first to be caught up in the decades-long controversy. Some historians point to the time in the 1800s when the U.S. began changing from an agrarian society to a manufacturing base as when sex education discussion — particularly, how to teach children about it — first surfaced. Before that time children observed farm animals mating as their own natural introduction to what euphemistically became known as “the birds and the bees.” Almost immediately sides were drawn as who should teach the children, when they should be taught, how it would be taught, and what would actually be conveyed to them.

Since no definitive solution was forthcoming, debates continued into the 1900s. By 1912,  the National Education Association was backing a program to train teachers about sex ed, though no official academic agenda was in place. The government got involved in the fray during World War I. Faced with widespread STD transmission among the troops, the army began making training films about the dangers of syphilis and gonorrhea. This experience led government officials to suggest that maybe sex ed should be taught in schools as a matter of national security.

By the 1920s — itself a decade known for libidinal behavior — sex ed in the form of social hygiene and health was being taught in at least a third of U.S. school districts. As World War II began in Europe, the U.S. Public Health Service stated it was an “urgent need” that sex ed be taught in schools.

After the War, the Boomer Generation was emerging. Education and health associations inside and outside the government and education circles again put forth an effort to establish nationwide training in schools. By 1955, the American Medical Association, in conjunction with the National Education Association, produced five pamphlets, referred to as “the sex education series,” that became the first national effort at standardizing information. That put boomers smack dab in the middle of a controversy that was reignited by both religious and political groups.

For the next decade sex ed in schools was labelled as everything from “smut” to “a communist plot.” This opposition coincides with the anecdotal research Mister Boomer has conducted on the subject. Namely, if, how and what boomers were taught about “the birds and the bees” in school varied greatly, depending on the state and the decade in which the boomer came of age.

Jewel Akens recorded this hit in song in 1964.

In Mister Boomer’s history, the subject isn’t complicated. As previously noted, Mister B spent his elementary school years in parochial school. Nuns weren’t exactly the type of teachers one would expect to know much about the subject, let alone teach it. Mister Boomer recalls that even the topic of the human body in sixth grade Science class was controversial. As students stared at “The Human Body” chapter title in their textbooks, the nun announced that this chapter could be read on each students’ own time. Several of the students, including Mister B, were fascinated by the clear acetate overlays in the chapter. They were the only color images in the book, and represented the organs, muscle and nervous systems. The teacher was not amused, demanding everyone close their books and repeated that it was up to each student whether the chapter would be read at home.

It wasn’t long after that, the subject of “the birds and the bees” was actually a topic in Religion class. The sum total of the discussion went like this: The nun told her students that at this point in their book, each student was supposed to ask their parents to give them “the talk.” As proof that this task was accomplished, the parent would sign the designated spot in their child’s book.

Mister B dutifully brought the book home and reluctantly opened it, explaining to his parents what his teacher had said. Immediately his mother got up from the dining room table and, walking away, said Mister B could talk with his father. Mister B’s dad, holding the book, escorted him down the hall toward his bedroom. Outside the bedroom door, he broke his silence. “If you ever have any questions, you can ask me,” he said. With that, he signed the book and gave it back to Mister B. The subject was never broached again.

Having been given “the talk,” Mister B had to learn about “the birds and the bees” the way many boomers did — on the street. Of course, misinformation ran rampant, but without any corroborating evidence, any tidbit was treated as truth. Some boomers talk of breaking into their father’s stash of Playboy magazines as their first foray into the subject. For Mister Boomer, the first “naked ladies” he saw were in the form of anatomy drawings. His neighbor’s parents were both artists and the boy brought one of their books to show around.

Other than that, the only mention of sex in elementary school came in the form of a movie that was supposed to illustrate the dangers of teen pregnancy … but, obliquely filmed with shadows and symbols to tell that story, it went over the heads of most of the kids. So much for sex ed until “health” class in high school. Even then, though, very little was said about “the birds and the bees.”

Did you have “the talk,” boomers? Was there any sex education taught in your school?

posted by Mister B in Education,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)

Dictionaries Helped Define the Boomer Education Years

Word came this past week that Merriam-Webster would update its dictionary, but the update would be online only — marking the end of the last remaining print version of an American dictionary. When Mister Boomer learned of this news, he couldn’t help but reference dictionary memories of his youth. Taking a page out of that history, one might say dictionaries pretty much defined boomer school days.

Every school kid knows the story of Samuel Johnson’s influential dictionary of the mid-1700s, but in the U.S., the task of documenting language in the burgeoning country fell to Noah Webster. In 1806 he published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, then followed it two decades later, in 1828, with An American Dictionary of the English Language.

After Webster died, George and Charles Merriam bought the publishing rights to his books and released dictionaries under the Webster company name. Fifty years later, in 1898, the Merriam-Webster Company began its Collegiate Dictionary series, which many boomers will remember as the dictionary title from their school days.

Mister Boomer’s first dictionary was acquired in the third grade. The students in his grade were all required to have one, so the school sold the officially-approved version; it was a hardcover book with a red cover, but Mister B can’t recall if it was a Webster or Merriam-Webster title, or something else. It was that dictionary that served Mister B throughout his elementary and high school years.

The dictionary was an inherent part of a boomer’s learning experience. Boomers had to know how to use the book to look up words for class, and how to understand the definitions and pronunciation keys. Dictionaries were sources used to expand vocabulary and as an indispensable tool when unfamiliar words appeared while reading novels and textbooks.

The dictionary was considered such an important part of the education process that several publishers released their own versions. Mister Boomer’s parents, like all boomer parents, wanted their children to succeed in school, so they invested in a mammoth-sized Funk & Wagnell’s dictionary. It was an added bonus that packets of pages could be purchased at the A&P supermarket each week. When Mister B’s father brought home the groceries, Mister B and his sister would unwrap the packets and slide the pre-punched pages onto metal pegs that were attached to the free hard cover. When completed, the book was massive; it resembled the oversized dictionary that sat on a pedestal inside every public library of the time. It was fine for homework, but hardly portable, so it resided on the bottom shelf in the hutch that contained the family’s Funk & Wagnell encyclopedias.

Mister B’s next dictionary was the only one he actually purchased — or rather, co-purchased with Sister Boomer. One Saturday morning in early 1970, there was a knock at the door. Sister Boomer answered it and was greeted by a salesman peddling Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language. She was impressed by the addition of the “Student Handbook” that included information on English, Literature, History, Physics, Astronomy, Mathematics, Chemistry, Music and more. She came to Mister B and convinced him go in halves with her on the purchase. The price was right, so the two bought the dictionary. Mister B still has it.


Richard Nixon was president when Mister B and his sister bought this Webster’s dictionary.

Dictionaries used to be essential books for everyone, especially school children. Now any word is just a search away on a smartphone and it is highly doubtful that anyone born after 2000 will ever own a print version. Dictionaries have joined the ever-growing list of items that boomers found common in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, that have either completely changed their form or disappeared altogether.

What defined your relationship with dictionaries, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Education,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)

Boomers Got Spanked

When we were young, spanking a child was considered a normal punishment for misbehaving. Whether in public or private, at school or home, a swat or two was delivered by parents, grandparents, teachers or virtually any authority figure in charge of the situation. By the end of the 1960s, spanking was on the way out as child punishment. Some attribute this to the immense popularity of Dr. Spock’s book, Baby and Child Care, first published in 1946, in which he proposed a more permissive and less physical approach to child discipline. As progressive education reforms began making inroads in the late ’60s and early ’70s, spanking was increasingly no longer welcomed in schools. Some later boomers will recall having to get a slip signed by their parents that gave permission to teachers to spank when they felt the necessity, or not to spank at all. By the middle of the 1970s, spanking had gone from a social norm to a pariah. The Supreme Court ruled in 1977 (Ingraham v. Wright) that spanking by a teacher or administrator in-and-of-itself was not illegal or a violation of a child’s constitutional rights, but deemed parameters be “prudent and reasonable.” The ’80s and ’90s continued the trend toward eliminating the practice, though it has only been banned in 31 states, and continues in the other 19 states, most of which are in the South. As far as society is concerned, though, spanking has been relegated to clandestine giggles between consenting couples who shared the same proclivity, or as the butt of jokes on TV sitcoms.

Now the practice of spanking may be poised to open a national debate once again, thanks to a bill that was considered in the Kansas State Legislature. State Representative Gail Finney proposed a bill that would allow “up to 10 forceful applications in succession of a bare, open-hand palm against the clothed buttocks of a child and any such reasonable physical force on the child as may be necessary to hold, restrain or control the child in the course of maintaining authority over the child, acknowledging that redness or bruising may occur on the tender skin of a child as a result.” The bill was slapped down in committee, but the question remains: after a generation since falling out of favor, is it time for society to revisit corporal punishment for disciplining a child?

Most baby boomers, including Mister Boomer, can attest to either being spanked themselves or have observed the practice administered on siblings or classmates. In schools, a paddle was often used instead of a bare hand, and most often it had the phrase, “Board of Education,” painted on it. In Mister B’s elementary school, the “board” was kept just outside the principal’s office, where the school secretary sat. In high school, the men’s gym teacher had possession of it. What Mister B witnessed in his early school days of the Baby Boom could today only be described as child abuse.

Mister Boomer was a “good” child who never gave teachers or parents a reason for resorting to corporal punishment. In his family, Brother Boomer was the sibling who most often incurred the wrath of his mother, the family disciplinarian. Her method involved “the belt,” which was a leather belt grabbed hastily from his father’s closet. Being of diminutive stature, Mister B’s mom never inflicted much damage to Brother Boomer, who mostly laughed it off. Brother Boomer was a pre-teen when his mother attempted to spank him for the last time. He ran as she tried to hit him, and she gave chase out the front door. When she caught him in front of the house, Brother Boomer grabbed the belt from her hand. Physically outmatched, she had no counter, except to say, “Wait until your father gets home.”

Spanking is another one of those long-standing practices that saw changes in the the Baby Boomer era. Yet when state representatives see the need to define and clarify the practice from a legal standpoint, it seems apparent that the question has yet to be completely resolved.

From Mister B’s point of view, what he witnessed as a child — especially in schools — was excessive and completely ineffective toward stopping the infractions from occurring again. On the other hand, observing children running amok in a restaurant or retail store begs the question of whether sparing the rod has indeed spoiled the child.

Did you get spanked as a child, boomers? Did you spank your children?

posted by Mister B in Education,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)

Is the Handwriting of Our Boomer Youth a Relic of the Past?

It has recently come to Mister Boomer’s attention that there is a debate going on in education circles about the teaching of cursive writing. That’s right, the handwriting standard of our childhood is being re-evaluated for the twenty-first century student. Does this mean the writing is on the wall for the handwriting style of our youth?

Cursive writing has been around hundreds if not thousands of years. Practically every culture developed their own form and style. The idea was a simple one: create legible words out of a single, complex line. By not having to lift the stylus or quill from the receiving medium, the chance for smudges was diminished while writing speed was gained.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the cursive writing of Western civilization was raised to a high art form. Possessing a beautiful handwriting style was looked on as a symbol of status and literacy. As such, it was mainly practiced by the privileged. Yet by the time Abraham Lincoln became president, handwriting acquired a more utilitarian feel than the flourishes of John Hancock a century earlier.

After all, that was the point; for hundreds of years all government and business transactions were recorded by hand. When Christopher Latham Sholes introduced the first commercially-made typewriter in 1867, not much changed for cursive writing. Then in 1878, Sholes received a patent for a new keyboard layout that was instantly known as QWERTY, since those were the characters of the top alphabet row on Latham’s keyboard.

Early typewriters held keys arranged in alphabetical order. When struck, the keys sent a metal arm that held a letter die on its end in an arc that ultimately struck a ribbon containing ink, thereby transferring the letterform to paper. Typists could strike the keys faster than the mechanical arms could move, which caused frequent clashes of the key arms. This resulted in lock-ups — the nineteenth century version of our digital crash. Since Sholes stood to gain financially by the sale of his typewriter, which was manufactured by Remington, he sought to diminish the clashes in an effort to speed up typing. He placed the keys in the QWERTY configuration for the simple reason of separating the mechanical key arms to avoid the problems. That did the trick, and the sale of typewriters rose dramatically. It wasn’t long before the by-hand cursive writing that was used for centuries for documenting government and business transactions was replaced by machine-generated writing, powered by the hands of skilled typists. It is worth noting that while many have tried to replace the QWERTY keyboard, itself a relic of a mechanical rather than digital era, Mr. Sholes’ keyboard layout is the de facto standard to this day.

Despite the success of the typewriter, cursive writing remained an absolutely necessary part of every educational system, until today. We boomers recall the drills in second and third grade that taught us to form letters, connecting each with an efficient swoop that flowed through to the next. First we made disconnected letters of the alphabet that held half-connections, using lined paper as our guide. The teacher would swing her arm in the air, mimicking the graceful strokes we were to make with our pencils. Though results did vary, somehow, we all managed to learn the process, and went on to create actual words from our roller-coaster letterforms.

Mister Boomer was never great at cursive writing, but his level of dexterity served him well enough through his school years and into college. At that point, his family bought their first typewriter for the task of making term papers — a used 1929 Underwood. Ultimately, Mister B’s handwriting, like that of many boomers, devolved into the chicken scratch it is today. Yet Mister B still writes “snail mail” letters and cards, and even the occasional blog entry starts out as scrawls on paper.

Now some teachers and educators are saying that the time has come to abandon the teaching of handwriting altogether. Teachers complain that with everything they are required to teach, there just isn’t time. Education professionals are saying in a world where kids are sending e-mail and texts at earlier and earlier ages and machines display our written words, it has become obsolete. Still others point out that the law does not require cursive writing for the signing of legal documents. Indeed, they argue, a good many of us have already developed our own form of writing that combines the elements of separate print-block letters with cursive connections in select combinations. You’ll find this type of writing prevalent in many office memos tacked onto bulletin boards or Post-It notes stuck to printouts of e-mails by boomer-aged managers and professionals alike.

On the side of keeping with the traditional teaching of cursive writing, one argument is that learning the discipline teaches hand-eye coordination and dexterity. It is often the defining time a child encounters for certain whether they are right- or left-handed. Once upon a time, even in boomer school years, writing with the left hand was greatly discouraged, and frowned on. Fortunately, ancient superstitions (the Latin word for “left” was “sinister”) have slowly disappeared and we now know it’s just as “normal” and “human” for a person to write with the right or left hand. Teaching handwriting can continue to dispel the myths. Others argue that children will also be required to read historical documents as far into the future as we can see, and they should be able to do so without a historical interpreter. Therefore, children at least need to read it if not write it. Hand-written notes, though certainly diminishing in numbers, are another big reason cited to keep teaching the method. They argue that nothing is more personal, or appreciated, than a hand-written note, whether it’s an invitation, thank you or personal sentiment. Still others point to the inability to write in a cursive manner as yet another indication of an overall decline in literacy skills.

Add a flickering projector noise and let it burn through partially into it, and this video wouldn’t be out of place with the educational films we saw in our boomer school days. But stick with it in its entirety, because the content is the key, and there’s an interesting twist in the end.

Cursive writing isn’t a relic of our youth just yet. It’s still being taught in a majority of state school systems, though several have de-emphasized it. How about it, boomers? Where do you weigh in on this debate? Is the cursive writing taught in our youth unnecessary for the world of today’s youth?

posted by Mister B in Education and have Comments (3)