Monday, January 26, 2009

The intellectual rigor of ABBA

Last month I read The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein. His thesis is that today's under-thirty crowd is the least intellectually developed generation in recent history. He blames this, in part, on the nature of the digital communications that generation uses; video games, text messaging, myspace, cell phones, etc. He argues that kids burn so much time with these forms of communication, that there is no time left for anything else. Another, more important, part of his argument, is that one reason kids burn their time away is because the previous generation allowed them to, or more accurately the guardians of our cultural heritage, teachers, scholars, writers, artists and the like, never convinced the current generation that there was anything of value in the World's cultural heritage worth pursuing.

I've also read a couple of blog posts recently by academics lamenting the unprepared minds they are expected to reach. One professor discusses in length the number of students who don't seem to understand that 800 BC came before 450 BC. There has been much talk about how even the best students view coursework and classes as mere obstacles to be overcome with the least amount of work.

All of which leads me to ABBA. Yes, the 70s Swedish pop group. I was discussing these ideas with my wife, and commented on the fact that in many universities, general history courses are often no longer required. Students don't have to know who Napoleon was in order to get degrees. I dramatized by say that one can go all the way through one's high school and college career without even hearing the word "Waterloo".

Now I challenge anyone over the age of 40. Can you hear the word Waterloo without the hearing somewhere in the back of your mind ABBA singing? Even if you are or were a die hard rocker or country fan, ABBA still seeped in and stayed there, because that's watch catchy song hooks do.

The interesting thing about this is that the ABBA song is not about the battle, but about a girl falling in love. But to get the song, you have to know the phrase "to meet one's Waterloo" meaning to come to a permanent, decisive surrender. The girl has surrendered to love, she has met her Waterloo. Of course the phrase is meaningless if you know nothing about Napoleon and the Napoleonic wars. The phrase itself has slowly slid from the language over the last thirty years as fewer and fewer people understood the referent. Today it unlikely that any band would write a song that assumed that the listened would know what happened to Napoleon at Waterloo.

So this is where we are. We live in a culture in which ABBA songs are to intellectually rigorous for the mass market. God help us.

And since we are talking about music, here's a video. Don't hit play unless you want ABBA to be stuck in your head all day.

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