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“Good old” days were “good” only in parts

There were a lot of things about “the good old days” that were no good at all—medicine, for starters. Indeed, if we were still living in the good old days, many of us wouldn’t be living at all. We’d be dead.

This is why I find folks who hanker for the world to return to “the good old days” before the horseless carriage and all of the other trappings of the Industrial Revolution so thoroughly irritating.

A world powered by the muscles of men and of horses might, at first glance, seem far more aesthetically pleasing than the world powered by coal, oil, the atom, and the internal combustion engine.

But don’t imagine the version of relaxed, uncomplicated 18th Century living as re–created at places like Colonial Williamsburg gives you the full picture.

Certainly, pre–industrial New York, Boston, Baltimore, and Williamsburg were not plagued by gasoline–induced air pollution. All levels of society, however, were struggling ineffectually to cope with the vast accumulations of horse manure, garbage, and human waste that ubiquitously befouled their streets.

The enormous advances in public health and sanitation over the past century and a half are among the most under–appreciated achievements of the Industrial Revolution. So don’t for a minute buy into fantasies of going back to an idyllic past. It never existed.

That said, there are a lot of things about the present day that are nowhere near as good as they were in the bad old unreconstructed days of the late Industrial era—childhood being one of them.

I’m not talking about childhood in the years prior to the 19th Century—for in the days before the steam engine, electricity, and the internal combustion engine, childhood as we know it scarcely existed.

Back then, ordinary people were far too preoccupied with scraping a living to indulge their children in something called childhood. Children were simply regarded as miniature adults with adult responsibilities.

The children of the poor were sent out to labor to augment the family’s precarious living. The children of the middle class were, as soon as judged able, put to learning a profitable trade, while the children of the wealthy were clad in adult fashion and taught the skills necessary to make a “suitable” marriage.

By contrast, the children of the late Industrial Era enjoyed the luxury of childhood. Education, largely free from the greater idiocies of political correctness, equipped us to explore the world around us. Improved public safety encouraged our parents to grant us a degree of freedom that enabled to enjoy discovering that world.

After school we were gone until suppertime. During school vacations, were we gone from breakfast until supper. In the country we prowled the hedgerows and ditches gathering newts, frogspawn, and beetles too slow to elude us. We learned from gamekeepers, farm hands, and the occasional poacher how to snare rabbits and shoot pigeons (good eating in Britain).

We made fireworks filled with homemade gunpowder, and, despite dark warnings that we might be kidnapped, we hung out with gypsies who, to our great envy, rarely washed and never went to school.

In the town, we played ball games in the city streets, grabbed rides behind horse drawn coal wagons and brewers drays, and—what bliss—earned a few pennies helping the milkman on his rounds. We went swimming in canals (not the most sanitary of places) using water wings made from old kerosene cans plugged with cork and linked together with string. Naturally, we were told never to play on the bombsites that scarred many towns and cities. Equally naturally, we explored them from top to bottom.

It was a childhood not without risks, but the vast majority of us survived it unharmed. In fact, while I have only anecdotal evidence to back the claim, I don’t think the childhood accident rate back then was any higher than it is today.

Compared with that sort of childhood, it seems to me that the kids of today have a miserable time. A grandparent recently related to me how her grandson was so anchored to his computer that her son–in–law had to order him to play outside.

As an outside observer, it appears to me that many children’s lives are so intensely organized they are left with little room to develop their own imaginations and act on their own initiative. At the same time, other children are lavished with material possessions but little parental attention.

One thing is striking, however: kids today have a far shallower grounding in moral education in general and the Christian faith in particular than children of my generation. They don’t get it at school, and many of them do not get it either at home or at at church. Indeed, their understanding of the world seems to be shaped more by the television and the Internet than any information source.

The extent of that influence can be judged by the amount of they spend with electronic media—computers, the Internet, video games, television, iPods, Facebook, Twitter, texting, the telephone, etc.

My generation had only radio and latterly the television, but, even in those days, considerable concern was expressed about the effect the electronic media were having on familial, social and civic life—family dinners spent in silence with everyone glued to the radio or goggling at the television set.

By present standards, however, television viewing in those days was thoroughly restrained. Currently, American children between the ages of 8 and 18 spent averaged more than 10 hours a day on the various forms of electronic media—up by some 50 percent over the past 10 years.

The consequences of abandoning the obligation to shape the ideas and attitudes the coming generation can be seen today’s worrisome decline in manners, morality, and civic pride among younger people. But then, this should hardly be surprising. As the Nobel laureate Milton Friedman observed: “If you subsidize something, you get more of it.”

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