Out of the Mouths of Babes
When your average doting adult today murmurs the expression, “Out of the mouths of babes,” it is less an expression of wonder than a validation of the widely held assumption that children — babes, tweens, and teens — are innately wiser than their elders. They know better (sexual and fashion choices). They are discerning (music). They feel, therefore they understand (politics). Or so we have come to think due to a stunning if under-appreciated cultural reversal. Once upon a time, we believed wisdom was an expression of experience and maturity. Today, we believe the exact opposite.
The wise child probably got his big literary boost in the nineteenth century with Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” in which the little boy with the piping voice was the only one in town to speak up about the emp’s delusional state of undress. But this was less a case of wise words than free speaking. Andersen’s urchin was in no way in thrall to the prevailing manners and mores of his town, which, of course, included making nice with the local power structure. By contrast, today’s little savants operate from within that same structure; indeed, they often seem to drive it.
And how did that happen? The merely conventional wisdom has it that the ascendance of youth in politics, culture, and consumption is a legacy of the late-1960s youth movement. But before most Baby Boomers were out of diapers, even before most Baby Boomers were born, the reconfiguration of the human experience around the whims and will of the young was already well entrenched. “Wisdom” was sure to follow.
By 1958, Dwight Macdonald had picked up on this new culture kink in his analysis of the then-recent trend in publishing devoted to the American teenager. “Probably more books dealing with teenagers have been published in the last fifteen years than in the preceding fifteen centuries,” he wrote in the New Yorker. Such books, it should be underscored, represented a new genre — how-to-raise-(i.e., live with)-teens books for parents, who were formerly the fonts of all family wisdom. Such guides included Facts of Life and Love for Teen-Agers; Milestones for Modern Teens; Understanding Teenagers; Do You Know Your Daughter?; and How to Live with Your Teenager. Macdonald continued: “The list goes on and on, and it includes many titles that would have been puzzling even in fairly recent times, because their subject matter is not the duty of children toward their parents, but precisely the opposite.”
It is hard to overstate the significance of this change more than half a century ago. It is this fundamental rearrangement of life’s building blocks that put successive decades on an entirely new footing from all that had come before. To say the tide had turned is to imply a temporary, cyclical shift. What had occurred — replacing the child’s duty to his parent with the parent’s duty to his child — has so far turned out to be permanent. This is not to suggest that parental duty did not exist before; it did, of course. In fact, maybe “duty” isn’t precisely the right word to describe the phenomenon Macdonald noted. What had changed was a sense of priorities. Long before the Baby Boom crested, adults — parents — were abdicating their own rights and privileges in deference to the desires of the young. As (not too much) time went by, adults even began to find that those same desires increasingly jibed with their own.
What was happening was what I think of as “the death of the grown-up,” the ending of adulthood as the common goal of the maturation process. Out of the ashes came the perpetual adolescent. “With the ancient is wisdom,” said Job; but with the young was suddenly “where it was at.” But if maturation was the new no-no, it soon became clear that it wasn’t just grey hair, smile lines, and cellulite that were on their way out. Also diminished was an appreciation for what ideally went along with maturity: traditional virtues including forbearance, honor, sobriety, decorum and ... wisdom.
There are economic reasons for the imbalance of power shifting to the young — an explosion of affluence after World War II left or placed pocket money in the hands of the young on an unprecedented level, seeding what became a brand-new “youth market” in the 1950s. There are educational reasons for it — the rapid expansion of higher education endowed young people with diplomas and expertise that overawed their high-school-educated parents. And there are even anthropological reasons for it — what Peter L. Berger called the “new cultural conception of childhood.” This was an outgrowth not only of the vast numbers of children born during the Baby Boom – 7 or 8 million of whom who had matriculated by 1970 at those rapidly expanding colleges and universities – but also of the abrupt decline of child mortality. This, Berger argued, transformed the parent-child relationship by encouraging parents to become more emotionally vested in children who, for the first time in history, were extremely likely to survive childhood. And this, Berger also argued, had the effect of ramping up both what we have come to know as Junior’s “self-esteem” and his influence.
These were more or less external factors. Ultimately, a more philosophical rationale had to emerge to justify the adults having ceded control of the culture to what were, just a few short decades earlier, a bunch of “slips,” “whelps” and “whippersnappers.” And emerge it did, enduring to this day. These “young people” — slips, whelps, and whippersnappers no longer — have something more than their youth, more than their inexperience. Indeed, by virtue of their youth, by virtue of their inexperience, they have wisdom.
They better have wisdom. Because if they don’t, what does that say about the rest of us?