Yeah, yeah—I know. The cure for cancer looms, self-driving cars have only a few bugs in them now, and artificial intelligence will soon serve us like Aladdin’s genie. But some of us are also old enough to recognize that things aren’t trending unequivocally upward.
Three examples will do for today. One is the difficulty simply of navigating a stairwell or hallway wherever young people are on the prowl. When I was their age, the “right lane” always remained open to oncoming traffic—an obvious extrapolation of our habit behind the wheel. Sidewalks, too, flowed with relative ease because everyone knew which side was his. Now you meet people coming at you head-on up the stairs and around every corner. They’re taking the shortest distance between two points, often as their eyes are glued to a hand-held screen. And they don’t move over. You have to flatten yourself against the nearest wall or risk a close encounter with a mass of unappetizing trinketry and hairspray.
It’s not that they no longer drive; pace the imminent self-driving car, our sons and daughters drive more than any generation in history. But it’s more likely now that their ambulatory texting habit influences their steering competence than that their driving skills impose any “yield right of way” rigor upon their walking. Even when they come to a halt, usually with fat backpacks bulging out in a campus environment, they project no sense of knowing themselves to be occupying the middle of a crowded thoroughfare. They stand and converse as if on the plains of Mars, the traffic flow congealing around them until it freezes. They don’t notice anything amiss, and talk on.
Thing Two: a very good student of mine was in a blue funk this week because a paper was coming due and I hadn’t forced a certain topic upon the class. She all but begged me to choose her topic for her; and, when I finally coaxed her down a particular avenue, she sent me an outline of her ideas and requested that I supply more. This really isn’t her fault. A student in the same class confided to me (and many of this group are graduating seniors) that he has never been allowed to select a paper topic within very broad parameters. The perspective has always been feminist or Marxist, by default. On one occasion when he mounted a slight resistance, he was summoned to a private conference and told to check his white male privilege.
Ironic, isn’t it? The goose-stepping avant-garde is supposed to be leading resistance against the Establishment’s stale group-think… but the truth is that all the little Furhrers and Peerless Leaders to whom we have granted tenure (on the public dime) are raising a generation of trembling sycophants and monomaniacal zombies. Enter David Hogg.
The degeneracy crops up in the humblest of places (Thing Three). Now, everybody abuses the third-person plural pronoun these days, and not just college students. “The therapist should speak directly to their patient if their schedule is interfering with the success of their exercise regimen…” what the hell is all that? For pity’s sake, make one noun singular and one plural, and then align references accordingly. In academe, however, such ratiocinative meltdown has a hoity-toity pedigree. “They” is the new “non-gender-specific” pronoun that allows you to refer to a person not present without assuming that person to be male or female or transgender or quasi-metro-crypto sexual or… well, let’s just say that life in the Ivory Tower has a way of making a world filled with robots look more attractive all the time.
The problem with sloppy grammar, as my example above attempts to show, is that real-life misunderstandings can occur, some of them inducing real-life catastrophes. At some point, I’m convinced that inability to hook up a noun with its proper referent may even pollute thought processes considered to be non-verbal. Will the engineers of these Martian igloos and rovers that our young generation is so eager to man (“person”, “bio-activate”… whatever) be putting the right nuts on the right bolts when they can’t even connect the pieces of a basic sentence? How are we supposed to inaugurate this golden age of interplanetary travel at the same time as our terrestrial communications are being reduced to “me no like uggum nung tungum”?
Of course, I stop at Thing Three only because time in the context of my lifespan is finite. Should I end with, “God help us?” But will, or can, God help those who have decided to elevate their ego in His place?