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GRAVES: Is today’s society in a state of decline, stasis or progress?

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

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When many people first read this quote, they shake their heads in agreement, based upon their views of today’s youth. Then, when they realize it is attributed to Plato, from the mouth of his teacher, Socrates, they rethink it, coming to the conclusion that some things never change. Each generation feels that the one that follows it is made up of people somehow less upright, more slovenly in pretty much every way imaginable. It is just part of the human condition; part, perhaps, of the aging process.

I have been a careful observer of children, i.e. the next generation, for my entire career and, arguably, my entire life since no one finds children more interesting than other children. And based upon my experience, I can definitively say that, as to the question of whether children are pretty much the same over the years or are today in a state of decline … I have no idea. Last week, I watched as the Mitchell Exchange Club recognized nine Mitchell High School students for their accomplishments and character and couldn’t help but feel that either this coming generation is every bit as good as mine (then again, I am a member of the Baby Boom, so perhaps that is not saying much) or probably significantly better than mine. Then I’ll turn around and have someone show me a social media site on which a young person admits — no, brags! — about something so stupid or insipid or reprehensible that I am ready to renounce my membership in the same species as them. (I’d do it, too, but I can never seem to get the Latin right on the withdrawal card.)

I have, in fact, gone back and forth on this issue so many times that I no longer know what to think about whether we as a society, led by the point man of the latest generation, is in a state of decline, stasis or progress. What I do know, however, is that children are almost infinitely impressionable. Since they are generally less inhibited, more enthusiastic, more willing to try new things than their elders, what the culture, i.e. we in the senior generations, offer them as innovations, they will probably try, and try with willful abandon.

Thus, it should not surprise us if attention spans are reduced when we kept our children perpetually entertained from birth and sometimes before. Why would we be shocked as the use and abuse of marijuana skyrockets among the young when we are now sending clear messages that it will soon be legalized everywhere? (Especially when we also redefined moral and ethical as whatever is legal, one of the great modern abominations.) Are we even able to say with a straight face anymore that we disapprove of academic dishonesty when the methods for its facilitation are endlessly discussed and explained on the Web, the tools and techniques for its successful implementation are as close as their ubiquitous cell phone, and even the great newspapers and journalists of the country are found guilty of the offense?

While I am not a fan of those who hate, or, at least, find much to disappoint in their own generation, I have to admit that if (and that is a big if) the most recent crop of humanity is truthfully less upright than those of the past, it may very well be the fault of those of the past. Generation Now (as I have no idea what letter the most recent has been assigned by the media) has not so much stormed the barricades of civilization as our generation has abandoned those barricades. When no one stands in the breach, well, it is breached.

Alternatively, perhaps things are not as bad as they seem. Perhaps the flip side of shorter generation spans is an improved ability to multi-task. Maybe marijuana (no, I don’t believe this but I can understand the argument) should be legalized since its prohibition is a losing battle with too many unnecessary casualties. Perhaps what we see as academic dishonesty is simply a function of a switch from the understanding of the educated person from one who knows lots of information to one who knows how and where to quickly find lots of information.

And if you are someone who takes solace in the quote that began this column — either seeing in it an apt description of the debauchery of the latest generation or that such a view is simply part of the human condition rather than a realistic assessment of the young — unfortunately the quote, while widely believed and distributed, is not found in the writings of Plato and is in fact inconsistent with the views of Socrates.

Yes, it is a made-up quote. It is an example of academic dishonesty not from the current scurrilous company of youth but from a writer in the 1960s. It spread like wildfire and still circulates widely and largely unchallenged today. Unchallenged, perhaps, because unlike the most recent generation, we of the older generations lacked the skills (or diligence) to discover the error.

Mark one down for Generation Now.