Problems, Real and Imagined

by Phyllis Chesler

The American professor asked all her students to share a little bit about themselves. The student who had recently arrived from Afghanistan said this:

“I am so lucky. With my passport pasted to my body, I walked and ran under a hail of Taliban whips and guns to the airport. Somehow, miraculously, some members of my family also kept up, and we managed to jump into the filthy sewer that surrounded the airport. I found the gate to the country that was going to offer me asylum. This took more than two days. I did not think we would get out alive, but we did. I am so grateful to be here. But I don’t know how long my luck will last.”

The next student, born in America, said this:

“I am really suffering, as I wrestle with my gender identity. I definitely think I’m queer but then what? Am I non-binary or a lesbian? What if I’m a trans-man? What if all the meds and surgeries that I need are too expensive or not covered by my parents’ insurance? What if I lose some friends over this or am discriminated against at a job or even here at the university?”

The Afghan student, a woman, has faced the most brutal misogynist tyranny. Her troubles are far from over in terms of obtaining citizenship anywhere on earth. The American student is concerned only with herself and with her identity. She does not seem connected to the issue of abortion and legally forced pregnancy/forced motherhood or to the still existing plagues of rape, incest, domestic violence, and the trafficking of women, in America, all of which can afflict her. Nor is she concerned with what happens to others in the world such as war, exile, homelessness, mental illness, violent crime, racism, etc.

What have we done to our coming generations? Can this ever be turned around? If so, how?

Given young people’s addiction to the internet where naught but misinformation and disinformation, as well as online peer pressure and fake “friendships” prevail (maybe adults are equally enthralled by the internet)—an addiction which has profoundly limited our attention span. Increasingly, people choose audiobooks and movies as their preferred go-to venues for information.

I recently met a young woman in her twenties, a college graduate, who was proud of the fact that she had not read any book written before 1985. But who am I? I am someone whose young granddaughters know more about Instagram, TikTok, and avatars than I do.

I am a member of all those generations who once wrote their books by hand (I did) or on a typewriter (I did) or on a scroll (sounds sacred, but before my time). I am one of those who love physical books: Holding them, smelling them if new, underlining passages or attaching my comments on post-its (I’m certainly guilty). I don’t even like to read on Kindle. I lust for high-ceiled two or three story libraries and would happily live in one if I could.

My breed is dying out. I would like to pass along all that I know—but how? It is not valued, not wanted, by those who need it most—like that American student above, whose privileged concerns are entirely personal, immediate, self-referential.


19 Responses

  1. Chaucer had what was considered a large library at the time—fifty books, as I recollect, and all hand written. Printing presses hadn’t been invented yet.

    Throughout history, most people in the world were illiterate. That only changed recently. Will future generations be tech savvy but cultural ignoramuses? Given climate disasters, each year worse than the last, given the loss of species that sustain life (pollinators, forests, etc.) will there be any future generations? Or perhaps just a handful scrabbling to survive among the ruins?

    The self-absorbed adolescent you quoted is one of multitudes. But there are other individuals and multitudes as well. Like Greta Thunberg and the Sunrise movement..,

  2. Phyllis jaan: It is required of parents to teach their children moral values (as we learn in the “V’ahvta”). If we relegate that task to the public school–woe to us for what will occur (or rather is occuring!). Values are learned at home if we do our job properly as parents. And if we model those values, no school indoctrination can remove them from our progeny.

  3. I sometimes think nobody reads anymore, they just write. 🙂 Audience is being hunted out there to extinction. This in itself may drive more and more people into safe space book nooks. (My most positive spin.)

  4. What a telling and disturbing piece! If these self-absorbed American students would read, say, any two books by Phyllis Chesler, their knowledge of the world and themselves would undergo a profound change.

  5. I too love to read. but prefer my Kindle so I can take it wherever I go. As long as I can read I am free to experience life as others see it. Doesn’t matter that the word is electronic, it’s still the written word and a passport to the world of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

  6. Beautifully laid out, Phyllis, as always with you. When I taught philosophy, at Stony Brook & then Brooklyn College, students had other ways of telegraphing their supposed immunity to anything a person older than themselves could possibly have to say. What I did instinctively was IGNORE their cues & proceed, in long grammatical paragraphs, to expound my own vantage point and its potential contribution to their lives. After a long pause & a double take or two, they generally dropped their pose of all-knowingness, and settled down to learn what I had to impart. So my own experience tells me to ignore this posturing & give what only you can give!

  7. I feel that Americans’ minds gave been molded and formed by the internet, in an umpleasent way. The inward fantasy focus, the transactional nature of their relationships, the loss of connection to real life and to physical reality…many have become captives of the social media empires that feed them their daily doses of dopamine.
    I feel that the best way to pass on what you know is to perhaps focus on US immigrants, or on citizens of non-US countries.

  8. There is simply too much to say here; once again, Ms. Chester lays out the truth. So many people appear oblivious to what’s happening in the world around them, ditto for any other country. I have witnessed people from all age groups hooked to their cell phones. Then there are the drivers, but I digress. Suffice it to say that, as attention spans continue to shrink, so do minds. History, politics and literature fade into the background. I do know one thing, however: truth telling in longhand will always be the preference of this girl.

  9. I remember not many year ago (maybe 5) I would on a nice beautiful fall or spring day go to the park and take a book to read. The park was packed and I started to notice no one else had a book-ever.

  10. Our generation produced the generation that produced the current generation. The question I keep asking myself is: what did or did not get transferred? I had many many kitchen table talks with my mom about what was happening in my world. If I had come home with the crap the kids today are learning in school, and on the internet, she would have hit the ceiling… I suspect there are too many “adults” out there today who wish to be pals with their offspring, a deadly mistake. Then too, I used to love reading books like Walden….

    1. “In Book III of Odes, circa 20 BCE, Horace wrote: “Our sires’ age was worse than our grandsires’. We, their sons, are more worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more corrupt.””

      In googling this, at least a full page was devoted to links likely pooh-poohing it as just one of millennia of old people uselessly complaining about the young. Itself a millennia old pursuit. And yet, the problem remains.

  11. Many are attracted to the new bright and shiny, and bizarre. Like moths to a flame some are consumed before they learn to discern the danger in unchallenged followership.

  12. Sadly true, Phyllis. Not only education but many important books themselves are endangered. I wrote about this a decade ago. “Forgotten Books of Witness” dealt with my mission to find books written by survivors of the 20th century’s various horrors. The books are mostly out of print now, but often found in thrift store bins and estate sales. If not rescued, read, and donated to interested libraries, these voices are lost forever.

  13. I grew up on comic books and Mad magazine and they didn’t discourage me from reading poetry, fiction, history, and theology: in fact, they introduced me to a great deal of literature (in the form of Mad spoofs) and social history. When I was in graduate school in the 1980s I read many underground comix from the 1960s and they made me wish my generation was more interested in changing the world for the better. But many of my friends and colleagues were frightened by the lack of opportunities for students of English and the Liberal Arts. The Reagan era made us all worry about how we were going to survive with low paying jobs- if we found a job- lack of medical benefits and little social help. Many of the people I studied with ended up suffering from mental health problems exacerbated by stress.
    The young American student may be facing ostracism by his or her family and financial hardship if they can’t afford the treatment that they need in addition to the risk of very real discrimination and persecution.

  14. Try taking a path that fewer travel. As consequences develop, accept them or reject them by changing your path and/or your attitude.
    Consider Castaneda’s approach — always choose a path with heart.

  15. I suppose I would now be thought cruel by the powers that be if I suggested to that young American woman that she take a pill. Low-dose anti-anxiety meds work wonders to contain that kind of hyperactive mental thought-salad.

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