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“A Youngster Needs a Knowledge of the Present”: A Popular Magazine Urges Tolerance for the Distractions of Youth

In the 1950s, parents, educators, religious leaders, and moralists expressed intense concern over the perceived harmful effects of modern life on the nation’s youth. This concern was not new, however. Fears of corrupting influences on youth have periodically flooded the public discourse, from child-rearing tomes of the antebellum period to congressional hearings in the 1950s on media and juvenile delinquency. The following editorial from 1950, in the popular magazine Collier’s, offered one perspective on the potential harm of such youthful indiscretions as radio programs, phonograph records, Western movies, and comic books and advocated tolerance for youth-oriented popular culture.

Boy Studying

Teachers have a tough time these days, says Dr. Paul Wagner, trying to compete with the noisy and intriguing distractions that surround the modern school child. To show how tough it is, the thirty-two-year-old president of Rollins College recently gave a little demonstration before a Florida audience.

First he started a radio, a phonograph, a Western movie and a hawker of comic books going all at once. (What, no television?) Then he turned off the noisemakers and the lights, lighted a candle, put it in an old lantern, and sat down with a copy of McGuffey’s reader to show how simple things were for the schoolboy of 100 years ago. No raucous blares competed with McGuffey for the student’s attention, said Dr. Wagner. Therefore he was better educated. Q.E.D.

We didn’t see the demonstration. But if we had we should have found it hard to envy the 1850 schoolboy, poring over the fine print of his reader by candlelight. We would even have found it hard to envy him McGuffey’s. In spite of the nostalgic regard of an older generation, the famous readers could hardly have satisfied a youngster’s normal yen for blood-and-thunder excitement. Surely a lot of schoolboys must have sought an antidote for McGuffey’s moralizing, sentimentality and stilted language—perhaps some early form of the dime novel which they hid underneath the woodshed.

If the boys 'parents discovered this extracurricular reading matter, they were probably just as concerned about it as parents are about comic books today. Every generation of elders does some headshaking over the trash that clutters up youthful minds. Maybe even Dr. Wagner’s parents were worried. Certainly their contemporaries were. For 25 years ago, when the youthful educator was starting out on his own educational journey, the movies were just as exciting, the “funnies” just as absorbing, and the radio and phonograph certainly as noisy as they are today.

We don’t blame weary teachers for wishing that the days of more cloistered scholarship would return. But they won’t. Today’s school child lives in an environment of busy, noisy, infinite variety. It may not represent the best of all possible worlds, but the kid is stuck with it. He can’t train for twentieth-century living in an academic vacuum. He must not only know the three R’s. He must also be slightly conversant with the activities of Dick Tracy, Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger, or he’s a social misfit.

A youngster needs a knowledge of the present in which he lives, just as he needs the accumulated wisdom of the past. Many of the things that distract him also help fill the gaps between the schoolbooks.

The distractions aren’t the prime source of poor education, and they’re certainly not all bad. After all, entertainment doesn’t have to be either raucous or lurid to beguile a schoolboy away from the heady delights of long division. So we rather hope that Dr. Wagner has Collier’s down on his complete list of distractions, even if he didn’t include us in his demonstration.

Source: “Boy Studying,” Collier’s, 28 January 1950, 82.