Common Wisdom: Looking Back

As the curtains close on the 20th century, we are presented with countless retrospectives. Of particular interest to me is a decade that covers three major chapters in my life: school, work, and marriage. It also happens to be the decade that is routinely ridiculed. If you guessed the 50s, you are correct.

The media have young consumers believing that people in the 50s were as constricted as Hannibal Lecter in a straitjacket. Proponents of this jaundiced view are almost always baby boomers who, in fact, were mere children in the 50s and coming of age only in the 60s, an era they record with reverent nostalgia.

Their promotion of self-fulfillment in the 60s resulted most recently in Pleasantville, a congratulatory film contrasting the dreary 50s and the emancipated 90s, legatees of the 60s revolution. To achieve this, they shot the 50s TV sitcom scenes in black and white, transformed into color when contemporary teens with 90s attitudes magically intermingle with and influence victims of those rigid years. The film’s cover box at Blockbuster describes it as the “clash of ’90s culture versus ’50s family values, and chaos which turns the town upside down but changes it from black and white into color.” Predictably, there is a “socially repressed Mom” who loses her inhibitions. Even in the Blockbuster analysis, which decade sounds more appealing?

The 50s for me began in a classroom, with an atmosphere today’s beleaguered teachers can only dream about. Authority was respected, order was maintained, and stress was minimal. If anyone violated rules of conduct, there were consequences, and there were few repeat offenders. Being rude to teachers was unthinkable, and we stood when the principal appeared at our door.

Hormones raged as much then as now, but here the similarity stops. In our high school, only one girl got pregnant. The rest of us were shocked and embarrassed for her. STDs were as remote to us as ICBMs. We dated one boy many times or many boys many times. We were free to date extensively because there was no anxiety or pressure to engage in physical intimacy, which we clearly understood to be reserved for marriage. We saw a lot of movies, none of which featured gutter language or copulating stars eager to shed their clothes. The absence of this was reflected on the street: obscenities did not litter public speech and sexual promiscuity was not epidemic.

We had favorite songs sung by a variety of vocalists who hadn’t appropriated the title “artist” and did not wear underwear as outerwear, so neither did we.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, there was only one divorce. Marriage was regarded as a lifetime commitment. Ups and downs were normal, and they were weathered and resolved. Families had two parents, not Heather and Tammy or Bruce and Josh but John and Mary.

College expanded our horizons, which was its purpose for most of us. It was not just a means to facilitate getting our names on office doors. Gentleman callers were limited to the downstairs dorm or sorority lounges during specified hours. And we never had to study by the hallway light because our roommate was cohabitating with a male in our bedroom.

We hoped to marry and have children. There was no such thing as daycare. The idea of having babies only to place them in the charge of a surrogate would have struck us as repugnant and unconscionable.

After graduation, we worked. We found that the ladies’ room had a couch on which we could repair if not feeling well. Men had no such perks. I gave thanks for my good fortune in being born female.

Commuting to our jobs, we usually gave up our seats on the bus or subway to the elderly or pregnant women. The most common gesture in daily travel was to hold a door for someone behind us, not raise a finger toward them. We did not regard any of this as extraordinary behavior.

All things considered, I would trade my microwave and the remote control that spares me from opening my car’s trunk with a key for the civility and courtesy of the 50s. Since then, we have suffered enormous losses in morality and manners. Our slide down the slippery slope began in the deconstructive 60s, that anarchic decade whose legacy haunts us even now in the final months of the 20th century. Let us pray it does not persist into the 21st.


B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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