Humanizing the Zeitgeist

| July 22, 2010

It can be said that Renee Cherow-O’Leary, Founder and President of Education for the 21st Century, began — to use her expression –by “mining the zeitgeist” or spirit of the age.  With enthusiasm she exhibited a stack of modern magazines, citing examples of  hot articles, among them “Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price: A Toll on Family Life and Studies Finds a Loss of Focus” (New York Times, Sunday, June 7, 2010) and “I Love My Children, I Hate My Life: The Misery of the American Parent” (New York Magazine, July 12, 2010).

In her guest talk, Media for Children & the Changing Nature of Childhood in the 21st Century, Renee set the background by discussing the impact of child labor laws of the 1920s and the advent of television, featured at the World’s Fair in 1939. She expertly dug through decades of children’s television; related the larger context of social-political movements, world events, and trends of the times; and extracted questions and ideas relevant to teaching and education — and most importantly, our humanity.  Serving to promote greater educational interest in Earth, Big Blue Marble, for example, emerged after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.  Marlo Thomas’ Free to Be You and Me launched during the women’s movement, at a time of peak divorce rates and natural consequences for children. Mr. Rogers’ famous reassurance, “I like you just the way you are,” was ministerial in outlook for the youngest generation.

One could not help but be absorbed and reflective when charged with two specific tasks during Renee’s engaging presentation: 1) ponder a favorite childhood toy, game, program, or activity; and 2) forecast an event of the next decade. The responses were insightful, including, in the former instance, visits to grandma’s house, climbing trees, cooking in the garage, and watching Wild Kingdom; and in the latter, a cure for AIDS, advances in brain technology, water as the “new gold,” more bilingual schools, prevalence of online education, the end of compact discs, and more fluid concepts of nationality.

I found myself thinking of the many things I loved to do growing up in the 60s and 70s, and two things stood out, somewhat inseparable: 1) creating stained glass windows or abstract designs which took hours to color — ignoring my mother’s pleas to go play outside –each crayon important down to the last detail, and 2) playing “cops and robbers” with my three brothers and all the neighborhood kids until the street lights went on in the depths of Chicagoan summer. One was an intimate, artistic activity, and the other, a physical, social, urban game – both without technology or much adult interaction.

I predicted widespread use of the electric car from 2020 onwards, believing that “gas is gone,” and we are consciously migrating to a more ecological use of our planet. I crossed my fingers under the table and looked around; people nodded and seemed to like this concept.

With wisdom and dexterity, Renee brought all attendees into a lively conversation, leading us to reflect on our role as educators, parents, and citizens in an increasingly technological world and a “mediated future.” She contrasted virtual and augmented reality, questioning the paradox of the former and the complexity of the latter. From her personal standpoint as a teacher and lover of the Arts and Humanities, Renee made sense of the zeitgeist and circled artfully back to the concept of what it means to be human.

Referencing Guest Speaker Renee Cherow O’Leary on Media for Children & the Changing Nature of Childhood in the 21st Century, Wednesday, 7/14, 4-5:30pm