How America Has Changed

How America Has Changed

We are all immersed in our culture, and that immersion alters our beliefs and values to some extent over time, often so slowly that we are unaware that change has occurred. A generation or two later, we may no longer remember our original beliefs and values accurately. And subsequent generations likely assume that today’s beliefs and values are the only valid ones. For these reasons, prudence suggests we look back from time to time, compare the views that now dominate our culture with those of two or three generations ago and consider whether the changes have been wise. This essay compares some important beliefs and values of the 1950s with those of today.

The 1950s View of the Family. The family was considered the foundation of society. It was composed of one man and one woman committed to each other for life, and in most cases included one or more children. Divorce was discouraged, especially when there were children. Parenthood entailed the responsibility for the formal education of children in school and for the equally important guidance in social and moral values. Over the next few decades, however, the role of parents was diminished as children were considered capable of self-guidance and no longer subordinate to their parents. Also, divorce became more common and parenting was increasingly conducted by single parents. The Present View of the Family. The earlier concept of family is now in disrepute, parental authority is weaker than it was, and children have believed to possess more rights, including the right to make significant decisions independent of parental guidance (and in some cases, parental knowledge). For example, the right to choose whether to have an abortion and whether to “divorce” their parents,

The 1950s Idea of Truth was that it is objective rather than subjective and identified by searching outside one’s mind rather than by consulting one’s wishes, feelings, and assumptions. It was also understood that beliefs about truth—including truth about morality—could be mistaken. The Present Idea is that truth is subjective and thus does not need to be discovered; instead, it is simply created by each individual. Everyone is thus considered “entitled” to his/her own truth, and any challenge to that truth is considered a violation of the person’s rights. For example, a boy may believe that, his birth anatomy notwithstanding, “he” is really “she” internally. Believing in the “truth” of that notion, he/she may decide to change gender by chemical or surgical means. Such choices are approved by some authorities, including President Biden, for children as young as age eight. And once that change has been accomplished, the “she” that was once a “he” may (for example) believe “she” has every right to compete in girl’s sports. Other female athletes may disagree and assert their “truth”  that transsexuals have no such right. In that case, school officials decide which “truth” is, for want of a better term, TRUER. (If you are thinking that it gets quite confusing at this point, I agree.)

The 1950s View of Self.  The prevailing belief was that, though too little regard for oneself can be harmful, too much regard can lead to self-absorption and even narcissism. Self-respect was thus encouraged, but self-discipline, self-restraint, self-mastery, and self-improvement were considered more important. A decade later, self-ESTEEM began to be considered essential to achievement, and by the 1980s young people were taught to avoid feeling shame and guilt for any behavior, and to reject criticism from others (including parents and teachers), as well as self-criticism. Out of this arose a hypersensitivity to violations of people’s self-esteem, both actual and imagined, and Political Correctness was born. Soon more and more words were banned, including “man” and “woman, and new ones were create, like “micro aggression.” The Latest View of Self has taken a bizarre turn that maintains the emphasis on self-esteem for some people while rejecting it entirely for others. The division is usually by race and ethnicity—Blacks and Hispanics are considered victims who need to increase their self-esteem even more, whereas whites are considered villains who bear the ancestral stain of slave-owning and should feel shame and guilt for their “white privilege.” The latest version of this belief system is called Critical Race Theory; its advocates teach white students as young as 5 years old to purse their self-esteem and be ashamed of their skin color.

The 1950s Attitude toward Work. People were expected to support themselves by working.  Self-sufficiency and a “strong work ethic” were considered necessary for success in life and psychological health. It was understood that circumstances could make finding or maintaining a job difficult, so government support and private charity were considered necessary, but only as temporary solutions. Receiving help longer than was necessary was believed to make a person overly dependent on others and thereby undermine his/her self-sufficiency. The Present Attitude Toward Work is that people have a fundamental right to be supported by government assistance and private charity. Any curtailment of such benefits is considered a form of discrimination. Today many people, in particular “progressive” politicians, believe not only in equality of opportunity but also in equality of outcome. The latter has proved difficult to achieve because those who retain a strong work ethic have the annoying habit of outperforming the less industrious. (Achievement penalties, aka higher taxes, have shown promise in solving this problem.)

The 1950s View of Education. At that time education was still centered on teaching students the skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic and exposing them to classical works in humanities, history, science, and social science. A couple of decades later, the emphasis expanded to teaching students how to apply reasoning to examine ideas and make judgments. The Present View of many teachers is that they are justified in putting aside traditional teaching priorities and simply share their personal views and agendas with students, even on matters outside their assigned subject areas. Interestingly, history is making a modest “comeback” in education—not the traditional kind of history that was preoccupied with facts, but the more modern variety that advances the teacher’s grievances, passions, and the slanted narratives favored by social media.

The 1950s View of Law and Order. Several thousand years of human inconsistency in “doing good and avoiding evil” had long persuaded people of every race and ethnicity that law and order are fundamental to civilized society. Not surprisingly, this was the prevailing view in 1950s America. Of course, it was generally understood that those who applied the law had no special immunity from the offenses that they protected other citizens from. The integrity  of the system depended on the willingness of honorable police, lawyers, and judges to purge their ranks of dishonorable associates. Most people believed that, though this system was imperfect, it worked well, especially when compared to the systems of most other countries. The Present View of Law and Order is quite different. Although a majority of Americans seem to share the prevailing view of the 1950s, a sizeable minority, many of them in public office, are extremely dissatisfied with the police, believing a disproportionate number of officers are racist. Many of these people believe that reform is no longer an option and instead police officers should be severely restricted in the way they respond to reports of crime. Others demand that police departments be “defunded” or, worse, completely disbanded. Ironically (some might say predictably), as these actions have been openly discussed and in some cases implemented, the rates of rioting, looting, arson, and violent crimes have increased dramatically, many police officers are resigning or retiring, and recruitment rates are often too low to meet replacement needs.

The important questions that all of us, young and old, are challenged to answer are these: Which of the present beliefs and values shown above are more reasonable than those they replaced, and which are not? What other beliefs and values, not shown above, need to be similarly examined? And what can Americans do, individually and collectively, to improve the situation?

Copyright © 2021 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero