"This concludes our broadcasting day..."

I am just old enough to remember something my students will never experience: a television sign-off. This was the nightly sequence of sermonette, national anthem, and then, well...


Just gray static and crickets. No more images coming in from the coasts or around the world. Here in the Midwest, we were once again all alone.

One can only imagine the reaction of my students if the Internet or their cell phones just went silent for a few hours each night between two to five a.m. It's unthinkable. Instant access to images, information and diversion is ubiquitous and unceasing today. My students sleep with their laptops and cell phones. The first thing they do upon opening their eyes each morning is stare into a screen. They are seldom alone, not even in the middle of the night or even here in the Midwestern middle of nowhere. My wife works with international high school students who are spending a year in America with American families. Increasingly, she says, these students spend so much time electronically plugged back into the friends and cultures they came from that it's almost like they never left. Or perhaps it's better to say that their home is on-line and they take it with them wherever they go. Nowhere is the new anywhere and right now is all there is.

I was thinking about this as I was putting together the syllabus for my Humanities 102 course, which tracks the values, tastes and big ideas from, as they say, Plato to NATO. Spring semester covers the Renaissance to the present (although I never seem to get much farther than 1950). I have always had a problem trying to conceptualize this half of the course. For one thing, there is simply too much going on over the last 800 years, and it goes on at a faster and faster pace as we move toward now. That's certainly part of the problem. Cultural trends since the Renaissance are a kind of auto-catalytic reaction. They feed on each other and spin-off in too many directions. Think of it this way: had a group of early medieval people been frozen in the year 900 A.D. and unfrozen a century later, they would have found a world whose culture was almost entirely familiar. Now imagine we were unfreezing someone from 1911. See what I mean?

By the time you reach the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, there are artistic movements and intellectual ideas that last only a few weeks or in some cases an afternoon: cubism, vorticism, imagism, constructivism, expressionism... All of this early 20th century messiness was a foretaste of the incessant "this just in" barrage we live in today. There is no longer any sign-off, no cultural breather or moment of being left temporarily alone with no further incoming images and ideas. They say my students love this 24/7 assault on their consciousness. They say they never want to be in a place where they aren't wired into the roaring, relentless beast talking to itself, representing itself, screaming for more and more attention. Maybe so.

Still, I often wish there was more silence in their lives. More two o'clock in the middle of night with nothing but moon and clouds and crickets.


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