By Joseph P. Kahn
March 9, 2009
A couple of months ago, a thread surfaced on my college class
listserv, purporting to rank the top 10 influences on our generation.
I forget what kicked off this discussion. These threads tend to erupt
rather spontaneously, in my experience, triggered by news events like
the current economic meltdown or in some cases seemingly mailed in
from left field (e.g., college courses that left an indelible mark 40
years ago), as if downloaded from some recurring dream in which,
faced with taking an Inorganic Chemistry exam, you suddenly realize
you'd skipped all the lectures.
My college class grew up in the '50s and graduated in the early '70s,
following four years of nonstop flying through social and political
wind shear. A misguided war and the possibility of being drafted to
fight it sparked violent student protests at home and plenty of
soul-searching about the direction America was taking, and our own roles in it.
Around us, meanwhile, bloomed the full flowering of the
counterculture. More than a few of us tuned in, turned on, and
dropped out. Some dropped back in a few weeks, months, or even years
later. Some never did find their way back.
Talk about leaving a mark.
It's hard to remember how high emotions - and imaginations - ran back
then. It's certainly not something easily explained to our own
children this many years later.
Forty years ago, students flooded the streets of Harvard Square in
furious opposition to LBJ's escalation of the Vietnam conflict. A few
years ago, LBJ's daughter Lynda Bird was a visiting fellow at the
John F. Kennedy School of Government. I arranged an interview. As we
strolled together through the square that morning - Lynda Bird bears
an uncanny resemblance to her late father - students passed by us
without a flicker of recognition. I'm not sure how that made her feel
(relieved, maybe), but I was experiencing an acute case of cognitive
Not surprisingly, Vietnam and the student protest movement landed at
No. 1 on this list of generational influences. No. 2 was the Beatles
and what was obliquely referred to as "other British imports," which
I took to mean the Rolling Stones, the Who, and a few others. Twiggy?
The Dave Clark Five? Not so much.
The assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK collectively made up No. 3 -
epochal, disturbing, America-changing, life-changing - just ahead of
civil-rights legislation championed by LBJ (he wasn't all bad, kids)
that helped pave the way for Barack Obama's election, four decades later.
Marijuana floated in at No. 5. While pot was hardly the only
consciousness-changing agent around at the time, it was the gateway
drug into Hippie Nation and deserving of its high draft choice, so to speak.
No. 6: the Cold War and proliferation of nuclear weapons, a more
remote threat than Vietnam but a scarier one, too. In my grade school
we ran duck-and-cover drills during the Cuban missile crisis.
Suburban families seriously discussed building backyard bomb
shelters. Not mine, thank goodness.
Television's No. 7 ranking reflected our generation being the first
to grow up with the medium and to be enveloped by its pop-culture
bubble. No. 8 was space travel (our class did produce a NASA
astronaut), and No. 9, the interstate highway system, a gift from the
Eisenhower administration. No. 10 was the shopping mall. I'd have
gone with Kurt Vonnegut Jr. or Stanley Kubrick, but that's just me.
The list invited feedback, and it got it. Several female classmates
maintained that birth control, legalized abortion, and changing
divorce laws deserved inclusion. One pointed out that Bill Baird had
been arrested in Boston for distributing birth control information
only the year before we started college. The consensus seemed to be
that our generation had come of age when authority was being
challenged (by us), barriers were being shattered (ditto), and the
world was rapidly becoming a more dangerous, wired-together place.
The next generation - our children's - is growing up under the
primary influence of computers, cellphones, the Internet, and other
technological marvels, it was suggested. I'd add Sept. 11 and the
threat of global climate change, hoping for their sake there'll be no
more duck-and-cover drills.
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.