The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear."... ...Ambrose Redmoon.

Commentary of the Day - December 22, 2004:  Generations of Fear.  Guest Commentary by Kathy A. Schaeffer.

Every journalistic bone in my body screams at me not to use the term "days of yore" in this or any commentary, but what's a girl to do when the term is right there and begging to be said?  Yore is defined as "time long past," so archaic or not, I have chosen to use it.  A portion of the times of which I will speak seem so very long ago. when innocence reigned.  Or did it?  Did we have less frightening worries in the days of yore than students have today, or were the fears just as strong, albeit different?

I think that educators on all levels need to be aware of the types of things that students fear.  This applies to college level students as much as it applies to the fears of kindergartners, I believe.  The law of averages seem to point toward a teacher or professor at some time needing to announce news in the classroom that is totally terrifying at worst and still "bad news" at best.  He or she will then either feed fear or help to alleviate it depending on how it is handled.  I think that taking a bit of time to think about certain scenarios coming to pass on a global, nationwide, or even local school level and how they would be explained to students is important.  Unfortunately, coming up with possible horrors to play "what would I do?" with are all too plentiful.

In the "time long past," those days of yore, we left home in the morning and walked or rode the bus to school.  What did most of us have to worry about?  Many of us lived those school days during the relatively recently ended cold war.  Was our largest global concern really about fallout from something Russia might "drop on us?"  It's rather embarrassing now to admit that the chief concern many times was being sure we knew where the nearest shelter was located.  In retrospect, high school students in the former Soviet Union probably feared the same thing from the United States.

About a decade ago, a friend of mine from Stockton, California, told of a rare snowfall there when she was a little girl in the mid 60s.  The school children were terrified to see it and "just knew" it was fallout and that the worst had happened, someone in Russia had pressed that proverbial "button."  She was amazed to find that everyone wasn't frantic and running for a shelter.

That story provides segue into the essence of my commentary.  Interestingly enough, the first school shooting that I recall was dateline Stockton in 1989.  Granted, it didn't become so much of a worry until after Columbine, but suddenly our children were worrying about more than whether the cafeteria was serving mystery meat or whether they passed the math test.  Students bringing guns to school!  How could this happen?

And not just gun violence, unfortunately.  Drugs have become rampant.  There are "designer" drugs now.  Then enter September 11, 2001.  Suddenly the fears that generations of early and late baby boomers had dealt with turned into reality and the news coverage was punching us in the whole nation's collective gut!  America was attacked.  It wasn't our cold war nemesis, but the horror was the same or worse than we may have ever imagined.  Teachers of children from coast to coast struggled to grasp words to explain such a senseless act while not scaring the children that were sitting there waiting for some kind of words of comfort or at least explanation.

I recently interviewed some people from all ages and walks of life on this topic.  I discovered that on a personal level, fears have not changed all that much over the decades.  The old bugaboos. . . the fear of financial concerns, success in life, and the fear of death are always at the top of most anyone's lists, but the global concerns shift and might I say sometimes even disappear?  To my surprise, I have had to change the whole slant of the closing of this commentary after the interviews!

College students seem to no longer spend time worrying about terrorism, war, or school violence on the "global fears" level.  The students I spoke with simply do not worry about things they have no control over.  (Granted it was only a small number of interviews and therefore may not represent the average.)  The thing worthy of note, however, is that I wasn't wrong about the fears in the "days of yore."  Younger baby boomers did fear nuclear attack.  Older interviewees mentioned things like the fear of another world war if they lived during and remembered the Pearl Harbor attack.  Things such as the cold war (Cuban missile crisis, for one example) and hearing the horror stories of "Checkpoint Charlie" killings at the Berlin Wall were part of their everyday fears.

I found myself wondering if the students of today who seem to take all the horrors of terrorism, AIDS, and things like it in stride might actually answer "terrorism was the big fear when I was a kid"  if asked thirty years from now.  Time will tell, but the results of the interviews were interesting nonetheless.  Has innocence been so drastically stolen from our children that many of them simply block the fears from their minds?

The bogeymen that lived under our beds in days of yore don't seem as frightening as those who reside, whether recognized by the children or not, under the beds of today's generation.  Things were so much more innocent back then.  Or were they?

©2004 Kathy A. Schaeffer
Kathy A. Schaeffer is a freelance writer and editor.

The IP comments:  The fears that Kathy describes are largely the "public fears" that are driven by the uncertainty of current events.  The 24-hour news cycle certainly has done much to exacerbate those fears among both children and college students.  These public fears are widely discussed.  But, at the same time, students often are plagued by private fears that often are not addressed.  These private fears -- the worries that student's have about their "popularity", whether they are attractive, about their self-worth, and even whether they are "normal" -- always have been there.  But somehow they seem more intense now than ever before, at least as reflected in epidemics of eating disorders, risky sexual behavior, and suicide.  Perhaps we pay too much attention to the public fears and not enough to the private fears of our students.

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© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.