Saturday, April 28, 2007

Maine Accent Disappearing

Published December, 2004

Years ago, my students talked with a Maine accent. They don’t anymore. When it was their parents’ voices they heard most often, they retained that distinctive, rural-Maine way of speaking, and that’s the way it was when I started teaching here back in the 1970s. Most kids spoke the way their parents did. The Maine twang was so thick in some I had a hard time understanding them. In one generation, however, it’s virtually gone. Now they all talk like the people they hear on television, on the radio, and on the CDs they listen to. And it’s not just the way they pronounce words that’s changing; the words they use to think with are changing too. Their parents’ words are not the ones children hear most in this generation, and that has huge implications.

Many of my fourteen-year-old students now think with words that come from mass media, and with those words come views on life’s biggest issues. There are still some who get their attitudes and perspectives the old-fashioned way - from home, and from churches, schools and civic organizations which echo what they hear at home. Those students used to be in the majority, but they’re not anymore. There’s been a shift. Students are discouraged from singing Christmas carols in school these days, but they’re allowed to listen to Tupac CDs on their walkmen while they’re riding to and from.

I don’t watch Dr. Phil, but I know who he is. I didn’t expect to see him when I tuned in to “Meet The Press” last Sunday but there he was. Tim Russert asked him about challenges facing our nation and McGraw said the biggest one was the American family. After three decades in education and teaching more than twenty-five hundred students, it’s hard to disagree. McGraw went on to say that there are many voices in the ears of children growing up today, and a parent’s voice is not only one. It’s not often the loudest voice, and it’s not the most-often heard voice either. Other voices are the louder and more frequent and parents must be aware of that.

Generations ago families spent a lot more time together. Kids went to school, but when they came home there was usually a mother present. They usually did chores like lugging wood or feeding animals, or they played outside. They went sledding or they played football or baseball. They rode bicycles. They shoveled snow. They mowed the lawn. They played with siblings. What do they do now? They watch television. They play video games. They go online. If they go outside at all, they ride snowmobiles or four-wheelers. Yeah, some still ride bicycles, but their numbers are diminishing, and many kids don’t even have siblings to play with or talk to.

It’s not just family which has less of a role in the raising or our children. The roles of our churches and our community organizations are also waning. It’s no wonder either - their biggest problem is lack of volunteers. Single parents can’t be expected to donate much of their time because it’s way too stretched already. Even families with two parents have little time because both usually work.

Teaching in the same community for more than a generation gives me a perspective most people don't get. Every year, half a dozen of my students are children of former students. The current generation has considerably less religious training compared to their predecessors, and I get a feeling for this when I'm teaching about the history of the Middle Eastern conflict. There’s no way to cover it well without students having some comparative knowledge of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Few students were ever aware of who Mohammed was, but I used to depend on most of them being familiar with Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ. I can’t depend on that anymore. With most students now, I have to start from scratch because those who’ve had any religious training at all are a distinct minority.

As for community organizations, few students belong to Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts any more. In the old days, it wasn’t unusual for students to come to school wearing a Scout uniform. I never see that now. If kids do belong to scouts, they keep it to themselves because it’s not fashionable. It’s seen as nerdy by other students so it’s kept in the closet, so to speak. Some Maine schools are threatened with lawsuits for even allowing the Boy Scouts to meet after hours in school facilities. Why? Either because their oath requires a belief in God, or because the organization has publicly declared they don’t want homosexuals to lead boy scouts on camping trips.

After mass media, the voices children hear at school - those of their fellow students and those of their teachers - are the ones reaching their ears most often. If children don’t actively receive training in cultural values from family, church or community organizations, then mass media provide them with the lowest common denominator of what passes for cultural values. These days, that's very low. The media are a kind of cultural default. In the public schools, however, there’s a script and most parents have given up control over who writes that script and the leftists who control the teachers' unions have become the authors. Schools have become a battleground in the culture wars as America itself becomes more polarized over social and cultural issues. Left and right compete to influence what goes into that script, and not difficult to see which side is winning. Hint: It's not the right.

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