October 25, 2023
The Dark Side of Pining for the Good Old Days
By Alfie Kohn
“Time was when parents had their own authority about the rearing of children….There was no back talk and no nonsense….Today we have the child- centered home. In it there is little peace and quiet, and certainly not much respect for, or fear of, authority.”
– Marguerite and Willard Beecher, Parents on the Run, 1955
“The rising generation cannot spell [and]…its English is slipshod…[because students are] victims of a good many haphazard educational experiments. New ideas in pedagogy have run amuck for the last twenty-five years.”
– Cornelia Comer, The Atlantic Monthly, February 1911
“Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily – Grade A for work of not very high merit, and Grade B for work not far above mediocrity.”
– Harvard University’s Committee on Raising the Standard, 1894
There is considerable disagreement about what it means to be a conservative,1 but the word reactionary, while heard more rarely, is less open to dispute. Here, one’s opposition to progress isn’t satisfied by keeping things the way they are; what’s wanted is to return to how things used to be. Underlying this prescription is a descriptive premise: that everything was better in the old days. People were smarter, nicer, and more ethical. Schools demanded more from students, yet students managed to live up to those expectations. Works of art were of higher quality. Parents were more skilled and kids promptly did what they were told.2
The flip side of this wistful yearning for a golden past — (sigh) “Those were the days, eh?” — is a grouchy bitterness about the present: “Everything has gone to hell!” It’s worth examining what gives rise to such sentiments, whether they’re at all accurate, and what impact they have.
Earlier this year, psychologists Adam Mastroianni and Daniel Gilbert analyzed an enormous international database and concluded, as they put it in an article in Nature, that “people all over the world believe that morality has declined, and they have believed this for as long as researchers have been asking them about it.” (Much longer, actually. They also cite the Roman historian Livy, who warned of “our modern day…moral decline” about 2300 years ago.) Younger and older people alike are convinced that this unhappy trend started, by an amazing coincidence, right around the time they, themselves, were born — although folks they know personally have somehow emerged as refreshing exceptions to the decline. Liberals as well as conservatives alike tend to think this way, although the latter believe that things have gone downhill more rapidly. Mastroianni and Gilbert argue that this belief can be explained by two types of bias: a proclivity for romanticizing what happened long ago and for focusing disproportionately on the bad things when we think about what’s happening now.
Meanwhile, John Protzko and Jonathan Schooler, another pair of psychologists, documented a similar perception regarding kids today, who fare poorly in comparison with our extremely favorable assessment of what we were like as children. “This can explain why the ‘kids these days’ effect has been happening for millennia.” When subjects were led to reassess their rosy memories of their younger selves, they became less inclined to disparage today’s youth.
It’s bit of a rhetorical cliché, really, to offer a quotation pertinent to whatever topic one is talking about and then reveal with a flourish that the source is actually decades, or even centuries, old. But to read strikingly familiar observations or sentiments offered by people long dead can be usefully unsettling. And if, after sounding off about how certain aspects of modern life are unprecedented in their capacity to give offense, we’re reminded that our distant ancestors said much the same thing? Well, that ought to make us stop talking and sit down — hard.
Consider all the people who like to pontificate about how today’s schools are failing and education standards are falling like never before. Richard Rothstein has cited a series of attacks on current schooling in comparison with how much better it used to be, moving backwards a decade at a time to show how long these criticisms have been offered.3 That inspired me to head for the library in search of more examples about education and also to discover whether the same thing is true of complaints about how parents coddle and defer to their children now, and, consequently, how kids today are more obnoxious and narcissistic than their counterparts of yesteryear.
Sure enough, on this topic, too, each generation invokes the good old days, during which period, we discover, people were doing exactly the same thing. That’s true of complaints about academic decline, including specific issues like grade inflation, and it’s just as true about how kids are raised and what they’re like. (The three epigraphs to this essay constitute a tiny proportion of the examples I found.)4
What’s true of morality, education, and parenting is also true of the arts. For example, movie critic A. O. Scott observes that the “larger-than-life golden age” of cinema is often thought to have been the 1940s or 50s, but that was precisely when Norma Desmond famously lamented in Sunset Boulevard that the pictures have gotten small. Someone is always complaining “that they don’t make them like they used to,” says Scott. “They never made them like they used to.”5
This proclivity for romanticizing the past and growling about the present appears to be (a) perennial and (b) cross-cultural. It’s also (c) dangerous because it prepares the ground for reactionary practices. That’s true most obviously in politics, where demagogues weaponize nostalgia. Claims about how much better things used to be can “help put people in the Oval Office,” remarks Mastroianni.6 Similar beliefs invite calls for more authoritarian styles of parenting and more traditional, “back-to-basics” schooling — direct instruction, with an emphasis on memorizing facts and practicing skills — as opposed to more student-centered, collaborative classrooms focused on constructing meaning. The latter approaches tend to produce better results even though reactionaries have for decades been dismissing them as fads.7
If there’s a silver lining to this ominous thundercloud, it’s the possibility of strategically leveraging the tendency to pine for the past. A series of studies discovered that conservatives are open to a wider range of ideas if they’re framed as a return to the way things used to be. For example, subjects were more receptive to immigration when it was presented as a tradition with a long history, or to gun control when reminded that, in the old days, no one had assault rifles and the ownership of weapons was limited.
The widespread tendency to claim that things used to be better is not only dangerous but also mostly false. That’s pretty clear just from the fact that people have been making these complaints forever, unless you’re prepared to argue that life has been on a downward trajectory from the beginning. The spoiled-children-of-today narrative is driven by something other than evidence, just as “the story of declining school quality across the twentieth century is, for the most part, a fable.”8 As for morality, Mastroianni and Gilbert cite extensive data in which people over the years have been asked the same questions about various kinds of moral and helpful behavior they’ve experienced. The result: “People’s reports of the current morality of their contemporaries were stable” over the entire period for which data exist, which is more than half a century.
There’s yet another way to challenge the accuracy of reactionary appeals to nostalgia. Consider Republican governor and presidential hopeful Nikki Haley’s lament, posted on social media in June 2023, as she made a play for Trump supporters: “Do you remember when you were growing up…how simple life was, how easy it felt? It was about faith, family, and country.” The operative phrase here is “when you were growing up” — that is, when you were a child and therefore likely to be less aware of, or at least bothered by, disturbing news stories, complicated events, and hidden dangers. To claim that life itself is less simple and easy today is to confuse a life-cycle effect (what is true of people at a certain age) with a period effect (what is true of everyone at a certain point in history).9
“The belief that society is changing for the worse…has been evident in every generation of the United States since the late 18th century,” a group of Cornell University psychologists wrote. What’s interesting, they add, is that this belief reveals much more about “unrecognized changes in the self” than it does about society. Young adults who become parents may suddenly become convinced the crime rate has increased even when it hasn’t. Older adults whose reflexes and coordination have declined may think other drivers have become more reckless even though there’s no evidence that’s true. “When people fail to realize that personal changes are the source of their perceptions of decline,” these researchers continued, “they are open to conservative movements that treat these perceptions as though they are real, offering their own explanations for decline and proposing reactionary solutions.”10
A moment ago I suggested that claims about how life used to be better are mostly false. I qualify that conclusion for two reasons. First, it depends on what we mean by “better.” No evidence supports claims that school quality or morality have declined. But if you happen to believe that punishing children by hitting them is desirable, it’s true that rates of corporal punishment have declined substantially in the industrialized world. If you’re someone who reminisces fondly about growing up before there were car seats for children or spongy playground surfaces or bullying-prevention programs — you know, that carefree time before meddlesome bureaucrats interfered with our freedom to fly into windshields, crack our skulls on asphalt, or be tormented by young sadists — then you may have some empirical basis for insisting that things were “better” a couple of generations ago (at least for those who survived).
And that leads to the other caveat: Better for whom? Here, too, we may have to concede that there is a drop of truth to this reactionary sentiment. In many ways, life in America was indeed better for white, Christian, relatively affluent, gender-conforming men — at least as compared to everyone else. Their position of privilege may have led them to feel powerful and relatively content. (A concise definition of “the good old days”: a time when much of the population was suffering silently.) Conservative thinkers from Allan Bloom to Jordan Peterson have also encouraged them to believe that these status differentials from which they benefited reflect the natural order: The way things used to be is the way they were meant to be.
Conservative columnist David Brooks recently lamented how far we’ve fallen — into crime, selfishness, rudeness, and tribalism — since the days when our social institutions supported “moral formation” and personal virtue. In response, a historian named Thomas Zimmer notes that this supposed era of personal virtue coincided with “a racist, patriarchal regime that accepted something approaching ‘democracy’ only for white Christian men,” whereas “significant progress toward multiracial, pluralistic democracy was made after ‘moral formation’ was, according to the author, largely abandoned.”11 In short, any claim that society has changed for the worse will depend on the criteria for that judgment and the subset of the population we’re talking about.
These qualifications aside, though, the belief that life used to be so much better in the good old days is neither new nor true. As the poet Adrienne Rich put it, “Nostalgia is only amnesia turned around.”
1. For example, a good case can be made that the term does not describe the current U.S. Republican party, with its religiously fueled embrace of authoritarianism and eagerness to destroy rather than preserve existing arrangements and institutions. This is a point made by many self-described conservatives who are keen to distance themselves from antidemocratic extremists and, for that matter, also by antidemocratic extremists keen to distance themselves from traditional conservatism. On the other hand, some observers have questioned this sharp distinction.
2. The idea that unquestioning obedience is a good thing represents a troubling assumption in its own right, of course.
3. Richard Rothstein, The Way We Were? (Century Foundation Press, 1998), chapter 1.
4. Alfie Kohn, The Myth of the Spoiled Child (Beacon Press, 2016), chapter 1. Also see my earlier article “Spoiled Rotten – A Timeless Complaint,” Washington Post, July 18, 2010; and these two marvelous Twitter threads by Paul Fairie entitled, respectively, “A Brief History of Kids Today Have Too Much Freedom” and “A Brief History of School Today Is Too Easy.”
5. A. O. Scott, “Losing It at the Movies,” New York Times Magazine, October 15, 2023, p. 58.
6. Mastroianni, in Hanna Rosin, “Are You Plagued by the Feeling that Everyone Used to Be Nicer?” Atlantic.com, July 27, 2023.
7. For much more on these issues, see my book The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).
8. Rothstein, op. cit., p. 20. The idea that schools are worse today than in the past has also been forcefully rebutted in David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle, The Manufactured Crisis (Addison-Wesley, 1995) and in many writings by the late Gerald Bracey.
9. There’s also a third possibility that social scientists struggle to untangle from those two when addressing questions such as “Do people become more conservative as they age?” or “Are today’s young people unusually narcissistic?”: a cohort effect (what’s true of a particular generation). For more on the interaction of all three, see Bobby Duffy, The Generation Myth (Basic Books, 2022). I looked into the narcissistic youth claim — energetically propounded by conservative psychologist Jean Twenge, amplified by the media, and persuasively rebutted by several data analysts — in The Myth of the Spoiled Child, op. cit., pp. 26-29. One such analyst summed up the evidence as follows: “Every generation is Generation Me. That is, until they grow up.”
10. The first quotation is from Richard P. Eibach et al., “When Change in the Self Is Mistaken for Change in the World,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84 (2003), p. 918. The second is from Richard P. Eibach and Lisa K. Libby, “Ideology of the Good Old Days,” in J.T. Jost et al., eds., Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification (Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 419. Such beliefs may be reversible, however. These researchers discovered that, while many people think adolescents today are less moral than adolescents in earlier times, adults who were asked (by the experimenters) to reflect on how their own moral perspectives had changed became less likely to make that assumption. This is an interesting complement to the other successful strategy that I mentioned earlier, offered by Protzker and Schooler: inviting people to rethink their dubious memories of how amazing they were as children as a way of prompting them to rethink their negative assumptions about today’s youth.
11. David Brooks, “How America Got Mean,” The Atlantic, September 2023; Thomas Zimmer, “Moralizing Nostalgia Leads to Bad History – and Helps the Anti-Democratic Right,” posted on Substack, August 22, 2023. Of course, this raises the question of whether we believe that movement toward a multiracial, pluralistic — and, one might add, secular — democracy is desirable. For example, one writer notes that “breaking American democracy isn’t an unintended side effect of Christian nationalism. It is the point of the project.” For such people, democratization might signal that things are indeed getting worse. One of the hallmarks of fascism, argues Brynn Tannehill in her book on that subject, is a “belief in a better mythic past, followed by a descent into depravity.” In a social media post, she juxtaposed a summary of that feature with Nikki Haley’s comment mentioned above.
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