Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Generation X Walked...

Kevin Drum asked a seemingly simple question, and opened up a floodgate: why don't kids walk to school anymore? (He cites his own observations, as well as a study showing that less than 1/3 of kids between the ages of 5 and 15 who live within a mile of their school walk or bike.) The responses were numerous and revealing: fear of crime (real, sometimes, but mostly imagined), poorly designed neighborhoods without sidewalks, loss of cross-walk guards and other services, heavy backpacks, addiction to driving, overprotectiveness, insanely busy schedules, obesity and laziness, two-career families for whom the drive to school is the only real opportunity for parents to interact with their children one-on-one, and so forth. Any one of these is worth picking up on and thinking about at length. (Keiran Healy uses the question as an opportunity to revisit the empirical complications of the "tipping-point" phenomenon.) Lots of good thinking all around.

What I personally found most interesting was the flavor of many of the comments on Kevin Drum's site. Kevin's crowd is very much a liberal Democratic one, yet again and again, if you read them closely, you can see language straight out of the conservative playbook: "times have changed," "kids today don't know how to play," "things really were different back then," "it's a changed world," etc., etc. Some of the commentators try to tie this into their general anti-Republican political orientation (blaming it on SUV addiction, or Bush's culture of fear, or some such thing), but most just let their complaints stand alone mournfully.

I can sympathize, and I wonder at the sociodemographics at play here. Some people like to make a big deal out the (ambiguous) evidence that younger people are turning conservative; others mock--or are appalled by--the very idea. I can't speak for the youth of America, and I wouldn't want to put such a broad label as "conservative" on whatever ideological transitions are taking place out there anyway. But there was a time when I--born in 1968, grew up in the 70s and, yes, walked or biked to school almost every day--fiddled with writing an essay titled "When Generation X Sends its Kids to School." Not surprisingly, I started thinking about this when our oldest daughter, Megan (now 7), started kindergarten, and Melissa and I felt ourselves surrounded, overwhelmed, by advice and strategy and counsel about how best to educate our little girl, and how to keep her productive and safe, and which schools would offer what and how much, and what we should fear and how we could be ready to overcome or circumvent it. We felt baffled and distracted. A lot of it was our own doing, of course--first child going off to school and all that. There was a fair amount of class and regional anxiety involved too (lower-middle-class family, breadwinner just out of graduate school, leaving Washington D.C. for a one-year position in Mississippi, of all places). But above and beyond it all, there was something down deep that Melissa and I both felt: that the education of children in America--both in and out of school--has become in the public mind a very big, very important, very delicate, very nerve-wracking affair, when really, it probably shouldn't be. This is not to ignore the very real problem of failing schools or dangerous neighborhoods or anything else; we we're fully aware of that. But the high-pressure, time-sensitive, goal-oriented world of today's public schools felt very odd to us, and not a little bit wrong.

I realize that this is much too heavy-handed a generational stereotype, but maybe those in their 30s today remember a time when neighborhoods were (more or less) intact enough, and teachers were (more or less) trusted enough, and the streets were (more or less) safe enough, and families were (more or less) stable enough, to allow children--namely, us--larger amounts of time, space, and responsibility. Bike to school. Be home by dark. Catch the bus downtown. Climb a tree. And so forth. This sensibility doesn't drive any kind of "conservatism," necessarily, but it does, for many of us at least, solidify a real discontent we have with a social world that (for economic and cultural reasons) has been so mercilessly measured and surveyed and risk-assessed. Not long before our experience with Megan, I'd read David Brooks's extremely depressing (for me) article on "The Organization Kid"--the child of baby boomers who has been prepped and watched over and groomed to excel. Heavy backpacks and programmed time with the parents forms the basis of this type of person's interaction with the world. The parents of my generation, on the other hand--the older siblings, perhaps, of those who rebelled (my dad listened to Elvis in high school, not the Beatles)--somehow missed out on the need to change the world, and the micromanagement it (not doubt unintentionally) entails. And they raised us to be slackers. A bad thing? In some ways. But if I can somehow make sure my daughters have the power and opportunity to slack off--to find their own way, make their own mistakes, develop their own little world, perhaps all while taking the time to walk to school--in the midst of this high-pressure, paranoid world, I'll feel that I've done some good.

Incidentally, Megan has yet to walk to school; we've always lived too far away from her building. And thanks to strapped budgets and tax cuts and that old tipping point phenomenon, the minimal bus service the districts we've lived in have provided would have required her to be out of house down on the corner by 7:00am. So again, it's not like my, and other Gen X-type's, sensibilities necessarily require typical small-government-conservative positions. On the contrary, I want more and better bus service, upkeep of the sidewalks, and planned neighborhoods. In the face of change, to conserve something precious--like "slacking"--takes money and collective effort. So again, in so many ways, if this is "conservatism," it's a new kind under the sun.