By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON Are you feelin' groovy? Do you remember when you didn't
trust anybody over 30? Does the word "plastics" bring to mind Dustin Hoffman?
If you're a baby boomer, you'll probably get this. And now, so will
some college kids.
They're the first group of students at American University taking a
class called "Talking About My Parents' Generation: Understanding
Baby Boomers and How They've Shaped Us."
Communication professor Leonard Steinhorn's honors class, wrapping up
its first semester, is a multimedia and interdisciplinary approach to
studying the history, psychology and sociology of the generation born
between 1946 and 1964 and how boomers are portrayed in media. The
course is an amalgam of images, books and other readings of the time,
along with lots of facts and figures. Course credit is in history
(yes, it is history to them) or communication.
Students get more than a glimpse in the rearview mirror. YouTube
videos and clips from seminal movies, TV shows and commercials help
the Internet generation forget their 21st-century mind-set and see
the world through a different lens.
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For a "time machine" paper, they have to imagine themselves part of
an event, a movement or time, describe it and what it symbolizes to
the boomer generation. By immersing themselves in the past, these
students have a chance to get a better handle on where their parents have been.
When 19-year-old Gabrielle Gorder talked to her mother about the
Kennedy assassination, "she told me she was on the playground and
thought it was the end of the world," says the sophomore journalism
major from Hanover, Mass.
History major Madeline Karp, 19, a sophomore from Ridgewood, N.J.,
says she's "really into The Beatles" and has already taken a course
about Vietnam. The first day of Steinhorn's class, watching the
classic 1950s TV show Father Knows Best, made Karp realize how
different her parents' world had been.
"My mom tells me stories about having to have her skirt measured in
school, and I can't imagine having to do that," she says.
Steinhorn, 51, is a baby boomer and clearly proud of it. His 2006
book The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy got a
lot of attention for its positive spin. "This is about understanding
your parents' generation, the choices they had to make and how those
choices affected their lives."
Dressed for class in jeans, a button-down shirt and sneakers,
Steinhorn both lectures and interacts with students. He has kept them
immersed in the era with 10 required books, a reading packet of 52
essays, articles and book excerpts; and 13 optional period films
including The Big Chill.
Steve Mintz, 54, co-chairman of the non-profit Council on
Contemporary Families, is familiar with the historical nature of
family relations. "Our kids think they know about us the
superficial things like The Beatles or they've heard about drugs or
hippies, but what they don't know is that we grew up in a world that
we expected to be orderly and stable and wound up in a world that's
"When JFK Jr. died, my parents watched CNN all day," says Annika
Pettitt, 19, a sophomore in international studies from Norwich, N.Y.
"I didn't understand it. To me, he wasn't famous. But he was such a
symbol for them. He was a child and grew up with them."
Her father, Mark Pettitt, 49, says they e-mail or talk about class,
including movies (The Graduate) and music (Beatles) that they both like.
"Now I tell her some of the stories from when I was growing up," he
says. "I talked about the political demonstrations that I took part in."
Whether it's as heavy as the war or a heated discussion of Bob
Dylan's music, students and their parents say the class has opened up
new avenues of communication.
Karp says most conversations with her parents used to be about her.
Now, it's often about them. "It's 'Hey, Dad, where were you in 1968?'
It's not stuff I've ever talked about with my parents before."
Many universities have courses devoted to the 1960s or '70s, Vietnam,
the civil rights movement, feminism or the counterculture.
But classes like this one aren't just about history; they can be good
for families, says Catherine Solheim, a University of Minnesota
associate professor of family social science who has previously
expressed concerns about making broad-brush generalizations about the
generations, such as the boomers or their kids.
"Parents and children don't have enough conversations about the
things, the events, the experiences that shaped who they are," she
says. "Anytime you can open up a dialogue about that, it's
fascinating conversation and creates a deeper level of understanding."
Every Tuesday after class, 21-year-old Kelly Johnson is on the phone
with a parent.
"They've pretty much come to expect that they're going to hear from
me after that class," says Johnson, a senior history major from
Brightwaters, N.Y. "Going to the class and calling them to talk about
it gives me a very well-rounded view of the era."