Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Letting Go of the Golden Age

I remember my hair.  It was never my best feature, but it did its job.  It even endured some questionable styling choices, including an 80’s mullet of which the less said, the better.  It’s gone now, and I miss it.  But it’s not coming back.

Part of getting older is coming to terms with certain kinds of loss.  I wouldn’t want to be 19 again, heaven knows, though I miss the hair and metabolism of that age.  Middle age brings with it some undeniable drawbacks -- anyone who has heard my knees when I stand up after a while knows what I’m talking about -- but it brings perspective, a certain social standing, and a different kind of confidence.  I will never be The Hot Guy, but I no longer care, and there’s a power in that.  

Serious students of history smile indulgently when they hear people talk about golden ages, broadly defined.  (That’s not to deny that individual people or projects can have hot streaks; most listeners would probably agree that Paul McCartney’s work in the 60’s was better than his work in the 80’s.) Golden Ages rely on partial and selective memory.  Youth brought with it a certain physical invincibility, but also an anxiety that pervaded almost every aspect of life.  Now, when anxiety exists, it exists for a reason.  That wasn’t always true, and I wouldn’t go back for anything.

I’m butting up against some Golden Age thinking among peers, and it’s frustrating.  It’s getting in the way.

In much of the country, community colleges are in a secular decline in enrollment.  They’re up against greater public and political scrutiny than they once were; arguments from professional deference have largely given way to demands for accountability, even as many of the older deference-based rules have remained in place.  Their funding is flat or nearly so, if it hasn’t been slashed or eliminated.  Health insurance costs continue to climb much faster than any revenue source.  Some tuition-driven four-year schools are lowering their standards to fish in our pond, exacerbating the enrollment problem.

But digging in heels and opposing anything new won’t bring the old days back.  In fact, the old days led inexorably to the new ones.  Had the old ways been sustainable, they would have been sustained.  They weren’t.

In looking at ways to adapt to the new environment, I keep butting up against longing for the return of the golden age.  If we just refuse to budge, the argument goes, the universe will relent and it will be 1977 again, only with more diversity and cooler phones.  We can stand athwart history, yelling Stop!

Except that we can’t.  And refusing to engage with the future amounts to giving up any meaningful agency in shaping it.

On a personal level, coming to terms with loss takes time.  The same is true on an institutional level.  My fear is that the longer we spend in denial, the less room we’ll have to move.  I’d rather have some say in shaping the future than in simply having it happen to me.  But golden ages die hard, even when they’re already dead.