You can lead a kid to culture...

Why it's so hard to raise Einsteins in the age of Ben Stiller.

stiller 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
stiller 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
My parents made us see good movies - you had to be able to identify movie stars. They also made us go to the opera. You were expected to know all the references. Getting caught not knowing something in my family was like being an idiot. - Television producer Matthew Weiner, New York Times Magazine, June 22, 2008 As far as I can tell, there are families like the Weiners, and then there are families like ours. Families like the Weiners gather around their artfully distressed cherry dining table and banter knowingly and wittily about great films, classic books, and favorite operas. Families like ours huddle at our Ikea specials and say things like, "What did we say about fart jokes at the table?" "Oh father," says a prepubescent Weiner, looking up from his well-thumbed copy of Goethe. "I must thank you for recommending the oeuvre of Jacques Tati. He's a Gallic Buster Keaton!" "Ma!!" yell children from families like ours. "Can we get Hannah Montana tickets? Can we? Can we?" Young Weiners research and impersonate Joseph McCarthy or Buckminster Fuller for a school history project. Children from families like ours dress up as Abraham Lincoln, and that's only because they tell their parents about the project the morning it is due and they happen to have a top hat left over from a bar mitzva party. And then parents like us pray that the teacher won't take off points because the hat is covered in silver sequins. It's not like parents from families like ours haven't tried to lead their children to culture. They park them in front of "Baby Einstein," shuttle them to piano and dance lessons, march them through museums and sculpture gardens. No sooner do they come home, however, than the children fire up YouTube and search videos by typing in "crotch" and "hit in the." FAMILIES LIKE ours are proud of their kids, they really are. The kids bring home "A"s on their report cards, dote on their grandparents, teach their parents to use their cell phones without taking pictures of their ears. And then the family visits a friend they haven't seen in a long time, and her seven-year-old sits down at the piano and begins to play "just a little something" he has written in music theory class, and the room is filled with a melody that combines the mathematical rigor of a Bach fugue with the daring iconoclasm of John Cage. And families like ours look at their kids, furiously texting in the corner, and despair. And families like ours worry not just that their kids are losing The Great Race, but that somehow, despite the ubiquity of media and stimulation in their children's lives, their world has narrowed. Families like ours worry that the kids won't have access to the milestones of culture that predate their birth. How can they fully appreciate Ben Stiller if they've never heard of Woody Allen? And how can they understand Woody Allen without even a cursory familiarity with the artistic currents that flowed through post-Eisenhower Greenwich Village, the urban Jewish milieu of Allen's Brooklyn childhood, and the complete filmic works of Bob Hope? Will they even know what the word "milieu" means? Families like ours even have a theory about this. Their children, they claim, are growing up in an era of narrowcasting, when entertainments are tailored for ever smaller slices of the viewing audience. Whole channels are devoted to toddlers, preteens, tweens, and "young adults." Web alerts and RSS feeds let them choose the topics they want to read and know about and avoid the serendipity of stumbling upon an unfamiliar subject or obscure reference. PARENTS FROM families like ours compare that to their own baby boomer childhoods, when the Big Three networks were it. Variety shows like Ed Sullivan's earned their name by exposing America to new acts like the Beatles, aging stars like Hope and Crosby, and high culture ambassadors like Robert Merrill and Van Cliburn. Not that everyone necessarily enjoyed the variety, and to this day millions of aging boomers have a Pavlovian need for a bathroom break whenever they hear the phrase, "Steve and Eydie." But at least they had exposure to the possibilities of culture, high and low. Well into the 1960s, local TV stations were still showing the Little Rascals and Warner Brothers cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s. "Million Dollar Movie" would trot out Hollywood warhorses. Before it was segregated by corporate programmers, a single AM radio station might offer up British invasion rock, Motown soul, a Broadway show tune, and a Johnny Cash single. The variety didn't turn the boomers into polymaths. But they worry that their kids won't even have the cultural memory to answer crossword clues like "French songstress Edith" and "Iwo ___, WW II battle site." But they try - oh how they try. And even if families like ours look more like the Brady Bunch than the Weiner Clan, they count small victories. Like when their son is preparing for a summer trip to Israel and they press a copy of Exodus into his hands. "I'm not going to read this," he complains. "They showed us the movie at school." A movie from 1960! Starring Paul Newman as Ari ben ________, and directed by Otto ________, and not a single cameo role for Ben Stiller! And families like ours rejoice. The writer is editor-in-chief of New Jersey Jewish News.