Politics & Policy

The Professor and Mary Ann (and Your Children)

A physicist explains how time can be reversed in modern popular culture.

I’m a child of the ’60s. No, not the ’60s of Woodstock, Vietnam, and urban riots — those were distant events, flickering images on our small black-and-white TV. I grew up in the twilight of post-war suburban America, the last few years when divorce was still rare, when drug use was largely a countercultural phenomenon, and when my parents could safely let me watch television without supervision, or take out books from the library without anyone checking the contents.

But the popular culture that our children experience has changed dramatically. To call modern television comedies “crass” is to insult the adjective. The televised baseball games I used to watch as a child are basically unchanged, but now they’re peppered with commercials for erectile-dysfunction drugs, a topic considerably more difficult to explain to a small child than the infield fly rule. And young-adult novels? The typical protagonist is saddled with divorced parents, an abusive stepfather, a drug-addicted sibling, and a friend who’s just committed suicide, along with a vampire or two. I won’t even let my children wander into the young-adult section of the bookstore, much less read those books. Sadly, even the greeting-card aisle of the supermarket is off-limits until my kids are old enough to spell “double entendre.”

Many parents simply throw up their hands in dismay and give up. After all, kids will be exposed to all of this popular culture eventually, so why try to shelter them from it? But the key word here is “eventually.” You do have control over your children’s earliest cultural experiences, and you can determine what they watch and read until they’re old enough to understand the cultural cistern in which they are swimming. And precisely the same technology that has produced so many of these problems can be used to counteract them.

Our first step, when our children were young, was to train them to mute the television whenever a commercial appeared. This has become so reflexive that I’m not sure they even realize now that commercials come with sound. When they were first learning to read, we looked into comic books. But these are really aimed at adults nowadays — they’ve become far too dark and disturbing for young children. No problem! A quick check of Amazon revealed an eight-volume set of the comics I grew up with: the 1960s Legion of Superheroes, enough for an entire childhood of comic-book reading. This had the added benefit of allowing me to catch up on the comics that my own parents severely rationed back when I was a kid.

Eventually we gave up on cable TV entirely and set our children’s television clock back by 50 years.

What about real books? There’s no reason for parents to confine themselves to books published recently when the online market provides access to almost any book ever written. Our rule of thumb is that pretty much anything published for kids before 1970 is safe — after that, the books require parental inspection. But wait — don’t kids want to read about modern children who are just like themselves? No, they don’t. They want to read about dragons, magicians, talking animals, and space travel. And children whose lives resemble the characters in a current young-adult novel probably need professional intervention more than they need a good book.

Eventually we gave up on cable TV entirely and set our children’s television clock back by 50 years. (Thank you, Netflix.) So our kids know exactly what “Danger, Will Robinson!” means, and one of them endeared herself to her teacher by writing, “Sorry about that, Chief” at the top of an exam. Now that my children and I share the same popular culture (mine), it’s something that brings us together instead of pulling us apart. As of today, we’re watching old episodes of Gilligan’s Island, which has aged surprisingly well. But I’m still curious to see if those castaways ever manage to get off that island.

— Robert Scherrer is the chairman of the department of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University and a founding board member of the Society of Catholic Scientists.

Most Popular

U.S.

Women’s Sports Should Be Women’s Sports

Transgender sports policies make a mockery of women’s competition. Just look at the state of Connecticut. At the 2018 state open for women’s track and field, two young men identifying as transgender took first and second place in the 100m race. Their participation not only deprived young women of their ... Read More
U.S.

Women’s Sports Should Be Women’s Sports

Transgender sports policies make a mockery of women’s competition. Just look at the state of Connecticut. At the 2018 state open for women’s track and field, two young men identifying as transgender took first and second place in the 100m race. Their participation not only deprived young women of their ... Read More

South Park as Healing Mechanism

It didn’t take too long into 2020 for people on Twitter to start earnestly debating whether South Park, an extremely popular show that has been on air for decades, has been wreaking havoc on our society with its offensiveness. As far as I can tell, the conversation started with a series of tweets from She-Hulk ... Read More

South Park as Healing Mechanism

It didn’t take too long into 2020 for people on Twitter to start earnestly debating whether South Park, an extremely popular show that has been on air for decades, has been wreaking havoc on our society with its offensiveness. As far as I can tell, the conversation started with a series of tweets from She-Hulk ... Read More
Elections

Four Overlooked Weaknesses of Bernie Sanders

Four frequently overlooked weaknesses of Bernie Sanders: Another health issue, even a minor one, would end his campaign. Trying to knock off a candidate who has the largest plurality of delegates in a convention floor fight is an extremely difficult task … unless that candidate is 78 years old and has had ... Read More
Elections

Four Overlooked Weaknesses of Bernie Sanders

Four frequently overlooked weaknesses of Bernie Sanders: Another health issue, even a minor one, would end his campaign. Trying to knock off a candidate who has the largest plurality of delegates in a convention floor fight is an extremely difficult task … unless that candidate is 78 years old and has had ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Florida Bill to Ban ‘Nature Rights’

I have been warning that “nature rights” would soon become part of the Democratic Party's environmental platform. That hasn't happened at the national party level -- yet. But Florida's Democratic Party has embraced the idea that nature should have rights that anyone can sue to enforce in its official ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Florida Bill to Ban ‘Nature Rights’

I have been warning that “nature rights” would soon become part of the Democratic Party's environmental platform. That hasn't happened at the national party level -- yet. But Florida's Democratic Party has embraced the idea that nature should have rights that anyone can sue to enforce in its official ... Read More